Yesterday, it was announced to the press that a small section of wall painting, depicting the goddess Diana, was stolen from a house in Pompeii. Coming after numerous weeks of (renewed) speculation on the management of the site after a series of collapses were made public, this marks yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of protecting the archaeological site, both from the elements and natural degradation, and more unfortunately, thieves. The original location of the painting, in the House of Neptune (VI.5.3), is a small room (Room 20 on the plan) off of the atrium of a building closed to public access. Hidden away from plain sight or easy access, it’s difficult not to conclude this act was committed by those who had very good – dare I say, inside – knowledge of the site. Regardless, the section of wall that was taken was part of a larger panel depicting the goddess with her brother Apollo, and more to the point, is part of a larger corpus of material that provides insight into the worship of Roman gods.
The gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon were ever present in the lives of their worshipers, something which is evident in Pompeii not only in their temples, shrines, and votive offerings, but also in the decor of their homes, and, of course, the epigraphy. There are three goddesses in particular that seem to dominate the Pompeian evidence, albeit each in a different way. Venus, the most ubiquitous of them all, was the patron deity of the colony, and as the goddess of love, was frequently called upon in regards to matters of the heart. Hers was one of two public priestesses that are known to us – the other dedicated to Ceres. Diana also appears frequently in the archaeological record, but unlike Venus, who appears in various media, and Ceres, who is primarily (though not exclusively) present in inscriptions, Diana features almost entirely in the artwork of the city – in wall paintings and statuary, both public and private.
Diana, or Artemis as the Greeks called her, was the goddess of the hunt, the moon, the countryside, and childbirth. Sister to Apollo, it is probably of no surprise that a bronze statue of her was located in Pompeii’s Temple of Apollo (pictured above), whose worship in the area dates back to the 6th century BC. Paintings of the two together are common, and indeed, the looted piece is one of them.
There are a mere four references in the epigraphic material loosely linked to Diana. All of these are graffiti, and all name Dianensis (AE 1911: 71, CIL IV 2993, IV 7021, IV 8486b). This is not actually a reference to the goddess specifically, but more likely to a pagus or vicus that was named in her honour.
Where Diana dominates the archaeological record is in imagery – wall paintings and statuary. There are nearly forty structures in Pompeii, located throughout the city, that have (or had) depictions of one form or another of Diana (or her Greek counterpart Artemis). Sometimes Diana appeared in conjunction with other gods, such as on the street shrines located at VIII.3.11 and IX.11.1. But more often she appears in one of two mythological scenes. As Artemis, she can appear either as a physical presence or as a statue, overseeing the sacrifice of Iphigenia. An important element of the Trojan War story, as told by Aeschylus and Euripides, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is meant to appease Artemis so the Greeks can sail to war, but most versions of the story in fact save the girl, who later becomes a priestess dedicated to the goddess who would have had her killed. One example of this can be found in the House of the Tragic Poet (VI.8.3) where a statue of Artemis witnesses the scene, and another in the House of Pinarius Cerialis (III.4.b).
The other popular iconography is of Diana and Acteon. According to myth, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, Acteon stumbled upon the virgin goddess when she was bathing, which she took as such an offense she turned him into a deer, as which he was then torn apart by his own hunting dogs. This is the subject of a number of paintings in the House of Loreius Tiburtinus (II.2.2). Room 11 has two large paintings on either side of a doorway, one showing Diana being interrupted at her bath by Acteon and the other depicting Acteon’s subsequent death. There are additional scenes of Diana and Acteon in Room 13 and the garden of the house.
In comparison to the mythological scenes described above, the painting of Diana that has just been stolen from the House of Neptune may seem somewhat insignificant:
It is not one that has been published repeatedly, was not deemed worthy of removal to the Naples Archaeological Museum, and was not actually in the best condition. That there is a inexpertly executed attempt at conservation on the borders of the panel may have actually made it easier for the section of wall to be removed by thieves. But that is somewhat beside the point, as any theft of cultural material, particularly one that causes further damage by removing a small piece of wall, is beyond reprehensible. In surveying the evidence for Diana in Pompeii, however, it is clear that unlike other goddesses, her importance to the townspeople is demonstrated exclusively through artwork, not by the epigraphy. Therefore, any loss of her image is a significant loss to the corpus of evidence and ability to gain a better understanding of her role in Pompeii. Hopefully, this is a loss that won’t be permanent.