Greek influences on Pompeii

Ruins of Pompeii seen from the above with a drone, with the Vesuvius in the background.

Several non-native societies had an influence on Ancient Pompeian culture. Historians’ interpretation of artefacts, preserved by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79, identify that such foreign influences came largely from Greek and Hellenistic cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt. Greek influences were transmitted to Pompeii via the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy), which were formed in the 8th century BC. Hellenistic influences originated from Roman commerce, and later conquest of Egypt from the 2nd century BC.

Specifically, these cultures contributed to the development of Pompeii’s art, architecture and religious spheres. For instance, Greek influences can be identified in the Alexander Mosaic, horse-shoe shaped theatres and Pompeii’s adoption of the Greek pantheon of gods. Also, examples of Egyptian influences can be found in the Nile Mosaic, garden art in the Villa of Julia Felix and the Cult of Isis.
Villa of Mysteries Fresco, Pompeii

Origin of Greek influences
The origins of Greek influences on Pompeii stems from an ancient region known by the Romans as ‘Magna Graecia’: a term used to label the cities of southern Italy established by the Greeks in the eighth century BC. The Greeks were attracted to this area due to the fertile land it offered and the advantageous trading position it controlled. As the settlement flourished, Greek influence was transmitted to Pompeii and the wider Roman world through these colonies. Rooted in this early link, Rome developed a deep and enduring fascination for Greek culture as they integrated its art, architecture and religion into their own society. The popularity of Hellenic culture grew following the Roman capture of Syracuse (212 BC) and sack of Corinth (146 BC) where plundered Greek art and architecture were brought back to Rome.
The Alexander Mosaic, House of the Faun

Greek influences on Pompeii
The Alexander Mosaic
The Alexander mosaic, unearthed during an 1831 excavation of the House of the Faun, depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia alongside their respective armies. This mosaic is believed to be a copy of a famous Greek painting by Philoxenos of Eretria dated c. 300 BC. It mirrors the elements of traditional Hellenistic art by both emphasising visual effects and drawing to attention the emotional reaction of the fighters.

The Three Graces Fresco
Discovered in the House of Titus Dentatus Panthera (on south wall of tablinum), the Three Graces fresco depicts the Graces dancing naked in a circle while holding sprigs of myrtle and wearing wreaths. The Graces (also known as the Charities) were minor goddesses of Greek mythology.

Numerous Roman copies of Doryphoros (‘Spear-Bearer’) have been found around Campania including one in Pompeii. This statue, dated 120–50 BC and made from Carrara marble, is an imitation of the bronze Greek original by the famed sculptor Polykleitos.

Pompeii’s Basilica (built between 120 BC and 78 BC) was constructed in the Hellenistic style. The building featured two levels of Greek Corinthian and Ionic columns rather than Roman arches to support the roof. An ancient Greek stoa; a freestanding colonnade which created public spaces.

The Large Palaestra of Pompeii, located in the eastern periphery of the city, adopts Greek architectural elements with its large, open colonnaded spaces. This Roman practice of constructing palaestras originates from the ancient Greek gymnasium, a complex similarly built for training and exercise.

The streetscape of Pompeii, with its use of insulae to divide the roads of the town into blocks.

The peristyle, based on Greek design, featured in several of Pompeii’s private buildings and villas. A peristyle was a colonnade or covered walkway around a courtyard which enclosed a garden. The House of The Faun depicts this architectural feature containing two peristyles: one built in the early 2nd century BC and the other in the late 2nd century BC.

The Cult of Dionysus
Dionysus, the god of fertility and wine was worshipped by the Greeks. Romans called this god Bacchus. Associated with this cult was the ‘bacchanalia’, a Latin term for the rites or festivals of Bacchus which according to Livy involved cult members participating in aggressive sexual promiscuity and alcohol-fuelled violence. In 186 BC the Roman senate, fearing that the unbridled nature of the festivals was a threat to public and political stability, outlawed the cult. Despite this, its practice still remained popular in Campania and evidence suggests Pompeii as well. For instance, The Villa of Mysteries displays a series of frescoes which many historians believe to depict a woman’s initiation into the cult of Dionysus.
Temple of Apollo, Pompeii

The Cult of Apollo
Worship of Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, music, dance, archery and prophecy, was also incorporated into Pompeian religion. Pompeii’s forum contained a Temple dedicated to this god built in the 2nd century BC. The temple was surrounded by Corinthian columns, featured a travertine stone altar and was decorated by statues of Apollo alongside other deities.

Worship of Hercules
The Romans adapted the Greek god Heracles and incorporated him into their own religion under the new Roman name Hercules. This hero was regarded as the son of Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) and was renowned for his superhuman strength and fantastic adventures. The House of the Garden of Hercules, located to the west of Pompeii’s Palestra, illustrates the influence of this Grecian god. Specifically, the garden of this building contained a large lararium where a marble statuette of Hercules, an altar and aedicula were dedicated to him. The House of the Vettii provides further evidence. Within its reception room, on the left hand wall, an infant Hercules is depicted strangling a serpent. This fresco, painted in Fourth Style, recalls the mythological story of when Hera, enraged by Zeus’ affair with Alcmene, sent snakes to kill their child Hercules.
Theatre mask mosaic, House of the Faun

Ancient Greek theatre, originally developed in Athens during the 6th century BC, Greek tragedy plays. Its popularity expanded into the Mediterranean where it was embraced by other Hellenistic cultures and Rome. This influence of Greek drama on Pompeii is portrayed in The House of the Faun. Uncovered within the remains of this building is a mosaic depicting two tragic theatrical masks surrounded by garlands, flowers and fruits. 15 drama masks recently rediscovered in Pompeii provide further evidence. These masks were life-sized, made of plaster and found in 1749 during a dig funded by King Charles of Bourbon. The exact location of where they were unearthed is not known as they were stored with a variety of other artefacts in the Royal Palace of Portici and 18th century dig journals provide only vague details of the excavation.
Achilles surrendering Briseis to Agamemnon, House of the Tragic Poet

The works and writers of Greek literature held a great influence over Roman culture. Beyond impacting Roman writing itself, scenes from Greek literature have been discovered throughout Pompeii. For instance, The House of the Tragic Poet displays a series of frescos which illustrate events from the Iliad by the Greek poet Homer. One panel displays the hero Achilles seated before his tent as he involuntarily releases his lover Briseis to Patroclus who guides her to Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks. The following panel, of which only half survives, portrays Helen as she steps from her homeland onto a ship which will transport her to Troy. It is believed that the lost fragment may have shown Paris, already in the ship, waiting for Helen, his queen, to join him.

Rome had been politically intertwined with Ptolemaic Kingdom as early as the 2nd century BC during the rule of Ptolemy VI, however it was during the conflict between Octavian (later named Augustus) and Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII that Rome underwent a period of being considerably influenced by Egyptian culture.  Ptolemy VI Philometor (Greek: Πτολεμαῖος Φιλομήτωρ, Ptolemaĩos Philomḗtōr;186–145 BC) was a Greek king of Ptolemaic Egypt who reigned from 180 to 164 BC and from 163 to 145 BC. He is often considered the last ruler of ancient Egypt when that state was still a major power. The Ptolemaic dynasty (/ˌtɒlɪˈmeɪ.ɪk/; Ancient Greek: Πτολεμαῖοι, Ptolemaioi), also known as the Lagid dynasty (Λαγίδαι, Lagidai; after Ptolemy I's father, Lagus), was a Macedonian Greek royal house which ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Ancient Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Reigning for 275 years, the Ptolemaic was the longest and last dynasty of ancient Egypt from 305 BC until its incorporation into the Roman Republic in 30 BC.