House of the Tragic Poet
History and museums
The House of the Tragic Poet (also called The Homeric House or The Iliadic House) is a typical 2nd century BC Roman house in Pompeii, Italy. The house, or villa, is famous for its elaborate mosaic floors and frescoes depicting scenes from Greek mythology.
Discovered in November 1824 by the archaeologist Antonio Bonucci, the House of the Tragic Poet has interested scholars and writers for generations. Although the size of the house itself is in no way remarkable, its interior decorations are not only numerous but of the highest quality among other frescoes and mosaics from ancient Pompeii. Because of the mismatch between the size of the house and the quality of its decoration, much has been wondered about the lives of the homeowners. Unfortunately, little is known about the family members, who were likely killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Traditionally, Pompeii is geographically broken up into nine regional areas, which are then further broken up into insular areas. The House of the Tragic Poet sat in Regio VI, Insula 8, the far-western part of Pompeii. The house faced the Via di Nola, one of Pompeii's largest streets that linked the forum and the Street of the Tombs. Across the Via di Nola from the House of the Tragic Poet sat the Forum Baths of Pompeii.
Like many Roman homes of the period, the House of the Tragic Poet is divided into two primary sections. The front, south-facing portion of the house serves as a public, presentation-oriented space. Here, two large rooms with outward-opening walls serve as shops run by the homeowners, or, less likely, as servants quarters. These shops lie on either side of a narrow entranceway, or vestibule. At the end of this hall sits the atrium, the most decorated of the rooms within the House of the Tragic Poet. Here, a large rectangular impluvium, or sunken water basin sits beneath an open ceiling, collecting water to be used by members of the household. Near the northern end of the impluvium sits a wellhead to be used for drawing water from the basin. Still farther from the entrance sits the tablinum, a second, open common area.
From these main areas extend smaller, private rooms, marking the second section of the house. Along the western wall of the atrium lie a series of cubicula, or bedrooms. Opposite these lie an additional cubiculum, an ala (a service area for a dining room), and an oecus (a small dining area). The northern end of the tablinum opens onto a large, open peristyle, or garden courtyard. To the right of the peristyle sits the drawing room, which, in the House of the Tragic Poet, is believed to have been used as the main dining salon. Adjacent to the drawing room is a small kitchen area. Near the left side of the peristyle, a small back door opens onto an additional street. Finally, into north-western corner of the peristyle is built a small lararium, or shrine to be used in worshiping the Lares Familiares, or family gods.
Although records and archaeological experts have confidently confirmed the existence of an upper story in the House of the Tragic Poet, little is known about its specific layout, as it was most likely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The vestibule floor was decorated with a mosaic picture of a domesticated dog leashed and chained to an arbitrary point. Below the figure were the words “CAVE CANEM”, an ancient warning equivalent to the modern “Beware of the Dog”. These words, much like similar signs today, warned visitors to enter at their own risk and served as protection over the more private quarters of the home. The rest of the vestibule floor was decorated in a tesserae or checker-like pattern, in black and white tiles. This pattern was framed by a border of two black stripes that surrounded the room.
The atrium was the focal point of art in the House of the Tragic Poet. After the House of the Vettii, it contained more large-scale, mythological frescoes than any other home in Pompeii. Each image was approximately four feet square, making figures slightly smaller than life-size. The images in the atrium frequently feature seated men and women in movement. The women are usually the focus of the images, undergoing important changes in their lives within the storylines of the famous Greek myths.
On the south wall of the atrium were two images—one of Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida and another of Aphrodite (now almost entirely destroyed). The image of Zeus and Hera celebrates a woman’s loss of virginity—a transition from youth to womanhood—as Hera’s veil is clearly removed from her head, symbolically exposing her face. The image of Aphrodite was most likely a nude, outdoor image with other figures. Many scholars agree that the image was probably a representation of the Judgment of Paris. The image of Zeus and Hera is part of the collection at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.
Along the east wall are scenes of Achilles and Briseis and of Helen and Paris. In the first image, Achilles is seen releasing Briseis to the Greek king Agamemnon, who removes her veil to show her weeping face. In the second image, Helen boards ship to travel back to her homeland of Troy. Although no longer in the image, it is believed that Paris was already seated in the boat as Helen boards. Both of these images are part of the collection at the Archaeological Museum in Naples.
The west wall of the atrium shows images of Amphitrite and Poseidon and of Achilles and Agamemnon. The first image, sometimes informally called the abduction of Amphitrite, shows Eros and Poseidon fighting, with multiple nymphs surrounding and nude. The second, known as the Wrath of Achilles, depicts the storyline of the Iliad, with Achilles angered from losing Briseis.
The tablinum floor, like that of the vestibule, was decorated with an elaborate mosaic image. Here, actors gather backstage preparing for a performance, as one character dresses and another plays a flute. Other characters surround a box of masks to be used during the performance. Because this mosaic is the centerpiece of the room and therefore seemingly important, modern archaeologists came up with the name "House of the Tragic Poet" to describe the entire villa. Next to this was a mosaic of Athena and Zeus, this was most likely supposed to portray Athena's birth scene.
The semi-outdoor peristyle area featured an imaginary garden scene or paradeisos in the trompe-l'œil style. This image, it is assumed, was intended to blend in with the actual garden that would have grown within the unroofed portion of the peristyle. To the left of the peristyle was a fresco known as the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, in which Iphigenia is taken by Ulysses and Achilles to be sacrificed just before Artemis delivers a deer to be sacrificed in her place.
Because so little is known about its owners yet such a wealth of scenes from Greek mythology were found inside it, the House of the Tragic Poet has served as the focus of many works of fiction and poetry. Among the more famous works is Lord Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, in which the author invents the personal life of the owner but rather accurately describes the house's details. Another well-known work is Vladimir Janovic's The House of the Tragic Poet, an epic poem imaged from the mosaic and fresco images throughout the villa.
Art historians and Classics scholars have long been fascinated by the House of the Tragic Poet because of the unique way in which it juxtaposes images from different periods and locations throughout mythological Greece. No single angle within the villa allows one to view all of the images present. Instead, one is required to move around the villa, looking at different combinations of pieces. This logistical fact allows viewers to draw on larger themes of Greek mythology, especially on the relationships between the powerful men and women and also the deities of ancient Greece.