What children’s drawings from the walls of Pompeii tell us about the Roman Empire

The Current17:46Ancient kids’ drawings show life in doomed Pompeii

Amid the unearthed sculptures and grand artwork that display the affluence of the once-grand city of Pompeii before its destruction, there’s a little drawing of the outline of a hand and some stick figures on the wall of a kitchen that tell a different story. 

“I think it’s one of these aspects of the site of Pompeii, which are so unique and really help us understand different side of the Roman world,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. 

Excavations in Italy have unearthed stick figure drawings in the ruins of Pompeii depicting gladiators and animal hunts believed to have been drawn by children before Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. 

Since excavations started in the 1700s, archeologists have learned a lot about the residents of the city, which was preserved under ash following the volcanic eruption.

It was a wealthy city, full of large estates and beautiful gardens. But Zuchtriegel says the stick man drawings give us a little peek into the life of the lower class. 

“Probably their parents didn’t have so much time to look after them. They certainly didn’t have the money to pay for the educator and a teacher as the rich households could,” said Zuchtriegel. 

“They just were playing and drawing on the walls and maybe afterwards getting shouted at, or worse.”

This drawing shows what Gabriel Zuchtriegel believes to be gladiators and what is likely an animal hunt. (Archaeological Park of Pompeii)

Why gladiators? 

The simple artwork includes a drawing that seems to portray two people playing with a ball, an animal, and a boxing scene.

Zuchtriegel says they have a guess at the age of the child who might have drawn it, because close to the drawing of gladiators, a child who was likely five or six had traced out the outline of their hand. 

Like many pieces of children’s art, they were displayed in the kitchen. But unlike a drawing a parent might put on the fridge, Zuchtriegel says these drawings were on the kitchen walls after a kid picked up a nearby piece of charcoal. 

A streetscape of an ancient city with Mount Vesuvius volcano in the distance under a cloudy sky. 
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, it covered the city in ash and preserved the moment in time. (Megan Williams/CBC)

According to psychologists from the University of Naples Federico II, who are working on the project with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, these were likely scenes the children watched first-hand at the amphitheatre in Pompeii. 

Then, as kids do, they likely used the drawing to explain the scene to their friends. Zuchtriegel said the sight would’ve certainly had an impact on a child who watched it.

“The blood you were seeing was real,” said Zuchtriegel. “The amphitheatre really was the great passion of the time. We have descriptions of people being almost addicted to seeing these games.”

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He says it also shows children were exposed to the events that went on at the amphitheatre, which also included crucifixions that would’ve amplified the curiosity around the growth of Christianity. 

“You have to imagine these people learning about someone in the eastern Mediterranean being crucified and becoming a religious leader and founder of a new religion, Jesus of Nazareth,” said Zuchtriegel.

“It makes you understand, really how strange and how new Christianity was at the time and how inconceivable for many people that such a cruel way of punishment … could become then a religious symbol.”

A man with facial hair poses for a portrait outdoors.
Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, says it’s important to tell the story of the children of Pompeii in order to get a full picture of that time in history. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Zuchtriegel says it’s important that the stories of the children of Pompeii get told because it’s not something that historians of that time would’ve recorded themselves. 

They were much more concerned with recording the political, philosophical and scientific breakthroughs of the time. But Pompeii, a well-preserved and unedited snapshot into that moment in time, gives archeologists insight into what the city really was like. 

“We can start to see what they, at the time, didn’t want to overemphasize,” said Zuchtriegel.

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