Venus Pompeiana


In addition to the pleas of the lovelorn one would expect to find addressed to the goddess of love, Venus appears in a number of contexts in Pompeii, both epigraphic and iconographic. Many of the images in particular are typical motifs for this deity: Venus at her bath, Venus lounging with Mars, or a marine scene of Venus and the sea from which she was born. One can only assume that Botticelli would have been pleased his own version of Venus resembled an ancient one, as found in the House of the Marine Venus (II.3.3).

Yet, Venus had a very special relationship with this city, separate from matters of the heart. She was the patron deity of Pompeii, and as such, took on a role here that is not found elsewhere in the ancient world. Venus’ appointment as patron goddess was a natural choice considering that the colony’s founder, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, claimed he was favoured by the goddess, particularly in her guise as Venus Felix, from which he took his cognomina. This is evident in the official name of the city as the Colonia Veneria Cornelia, as found in this inscription found in the Temple of Apollo:

CIL X 787
M(arcus) Holconius Rufus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) tert(ium) / C(aius) Egnatius Postumus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) iter(um) / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) ius luminum / opstruendorum(!) HS |(mille) |(mille) |(mille) / redemerunt parietemque / privatum col(onia) Ven(eria) Cor(nelia) / usque at(!) tegulas / faciundum coera(ve)runt.
‘Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power for the third time, and Gaius Egnatius Postumus, duumvir with judicial power for the second time, by decree of the decurions, paid 3,000 sesterces for the right to block off light, and say to the building of a private wall belonging to the colonia Veneria Cornelia.’

This name for the colony appears so frequently in the wax tablets of Iucundus it is often abbreviated as ‘c.c.V.C.’ (See, for example, CIL IV 3340.28, 3340.141, 3340.142, 3340.143, 3340.144, 3340.147, and 3340.148.)

Venus Pompeiana, as she was called locally, is a personification of the goddess that was wholly created by the inhabitants of this city. Likely a manifestation of her role as protector, the Pompeians clearly held their version of Venus in a special place, which is evident in both epigraphic and visual representations of the goddess. It was not unusual to call upon Venus Pompeiana for assistance or protection, as can be seen in the following texts.

CIL IV 26 = CIL I2 1664a
N(umerium) Barcha(m) IIv(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) ita v[o]beis Venus Pomp(eiana) sacra [sancta propitia sit].
‘I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana (be favourable) to your offerings.’

CIL IV 538 (ILS 5138), underneath an image of gladiators
(H)abiat Venere <P>ompei{i}ana iratam qui hoc laesaerit.
‘May he who vandalises this picture incur the wrath of Pompeian Venus.’

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Another aspect of Venus’ localised personification comes in the conflation of the Roman goddess with an indigenous Italic deity, most likely, Mefitis. Both goddesses have characteristics relating to nature and the physical world, and both appear with the epithet Fisica. Mefitis Fisica is found outside Pompeii, in Grumentum:

CIL X 203
[—] Mefiti Fisicae [—]

Venus Pompeiana Fisica, or simply Venus Fisica, is found in a number of inscriptions around the city:

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
‘Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.’

CIL IV 6865
[—]ae nostrae feliciter. / [Perp]etuo rogo, domna; per / [Vener]m(-) Fisicam te rogo ni me / [reicias?] / [—]us. Habeto mei memoriam.
‘Greetings to you, our…I beg you incessantly, my lady; by Venus Fisica I beg you not to refuse me. Remember me.’

Venus Fisica is even credited with inspiring offerings to other Roman gods, as seen in this votive dedication:

CIL X 928
Imperio Veneris Fisicae Iovi O(ptimo) M(aximo) / Antistia Methe / Antisti Primigeni / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘At the behest of Venus Fisica, Antistia Methe (of) Antistius Primigenius (dedicated this) to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. By the decree of the decurions.’

The worship of Venus Pompeiana, unlike Diana and Ceres, has been linked to a dedicated temple. Located outside the city walls, on a promontory that would have once looked out to sea, the sanctuary had a sacred grove in addition to the temple building. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that a temple stood on the site prior to the one dedicated to Venus – some have tried to link this to pre-colonial worship of Mefitis, in attempt to further the link to later adoption of Venus – but this remains tenuous.

With the temple, one would expect to also find evidence of priestesses dedicated to the adoration of Venus. Surprisingly, there is only one woman, a member of the Alleii family, who is specifically named as a priestess of Venus:

[A]lleia Mai f(ilia) / [s]acerd(os) Veneris / et Cereris sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accordance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

There are, however, four women who are identified as sacerdos publica in inscriptions that do not specify the deity worshipped. As Venus is the patron goddess of the colony, it seems a logical conclusion that any woman named as a ‘public priestess’ was in fact charged with honouring Venus on behalf of the city. That the women known to us – Eumachia (CIL X 810-813), Mammia (CIL X 816 and 998), Holconia (CIL X 950), and Istacidia Rufilla (CIL X 999) – all come from prominent families of the Augustan period perhaps reinforces this conclusion.

There are two further texts that refer to the worship of Venus, both from columellae in a funerary context:

CIL X 1023
Iunoni / Tyches Iuliae / Augustae Vener(iae).
‘To the Juno of Tyche, (slave) of Julia Augusta, worshipper of Venus.’

CIL X 1054
Mesciniae |(mulieris) l(ibertae) / Veneriae.
‘To Mescinia, freedwoman (of a woman), worshipper of Venus.’

One further aspect of Venus Pompeiana worth mentioning is her iconographic persona, which is something that is entirely separate from that of the goddess of love. Gone is the nude imagery of the goddess normally on view – even within Pompeii – and in her place is a very different figure. Venus Pompeiana is fully clothed, wearing a crown, and holding a sceptre in one hand and a rudder in the other. As she is still accompanied by Eros, as is usual for the more familiar version of Venus, there is no doubt as to her identification. One of the best examples of this was found in the House of Verecundus (IX.7.6), in which Venus Pompeiana stands in the prow of a boat being drawn by four elephants:



A similar figure is found in another painting, from the House of Venus and the Four Gods (IX.7.1):




The rudder is still present despite the lack of the boat. Some scholars have equated this with Pompeii’s function as a port on the Sarno River. This aspect of relating Venus to the sea, not just as her place of birth, but specifically for its importance to Pompeii and the natural world may be another aspect of the characterization of Venus Pompeiana Fisica. This can be seen in a painting from the Domus of Lesbianus and Numicia Primigenia (I.13.9) wherein Venus Pompeiana appears to be steering a boat:



Similar images of Venus Pompeiana, distinctive in her clothing, crown, sceptre and rudder can be found in the House of the Labyrinth (VI.11.9), House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), the House of M. Fabius Rufus (VII.16.22, pictured above) and a shop at V.4.6.

The epigraphic and iconographic evidence clearly demonstrates that in some sense, two different images of Venus existed for the inhabitants of Pompeii. One was the traditional deity of the Roman pantheon, but the other was far more familiar, and was a localized personification of the goddess. Although for all intents and purposes the two were one and the same, the specific manifestations of Venus Pompeiana, particularly in her imagery, illustrates that the Pompeians had their own view of Venus in her guise as the protector and benefactor of the city which was all their own.

3 thoughts on “Venus Pompeiana

  1. Colin C. Campbell 24 Apr 2014 / 16:31

    Is this your paper for the Leeds seminar?

    • vlcampbell 24 Apr 2014 / 16:48

      No…that’s an entirely different paper, and will be here in some form after the fact.

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