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The Perplexity Of The Villa Of Mysteries In Pompeii

The Perplexity Of The Villa Of Mysteries In Pompeii


The Villa of Mysteries was one of the most luxurious villas unearthed during the 1909-1911 excavations of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was buried in volcanic ash with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Miraculously this Roman villa, when uncovered, reappeared almost exactly as it stood more than 2,000 years earlier; even its artwork has survived in surprising condition. The mystery within this ancient villa relates to a particular room where the walls are completely covered with vivid murals of numerous women performing enigmatic interactions. The scenes on the friezes depict images of beautiful women, drunken men, fauns, maenads, winged figures and the ritual flagellation of a young woman. Scholars have determined that these pictorial scenes may illustrate secret ceremonies conducted by a women’s mystery cult. This continuous series of paintings are significant for religious scholars as little is known about secret cultic actions of the past. Even less is known about ancient cults formed by women. The pictorial frieze has often been called the most important and best-preserved artwork from Roman antiquity.

What is the secret behind these religious rituals encoded within the murals of the Villa of the Mysteries?  Are they artworks depicting esoteric rituals that were actually performed by women at this ancient Roman estate? Was this the site where new members were interviewed before initiation? Was the owner bragging of her own initiation? What ancient enigmas are still hidden on these walls?

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Brullov (1830–1833) (Public Domain)

The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Brullov (1830–1833) (Public Domain)

The Last Day Of Pompeii

The violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, deposited a 13- to 20-foot layer of volcanic ash and pumice on Pompeii, entrapping direct evidence of Roman life and preserving everything exactly as it was, fixed permanently in its place. These buried remnants were carbonized and encapsulated within the layers of ash that hardened over time. Because no moisture or air could penetrate the city buried below, many of the houses, artifacts and artworks have survived intact. The scorched remains reveal details of public buildings, furnishings, food, and evidence of daily activities. Uncovering the ancient city exposed a rich source of information on ancient Roman life never before available. The extraordinary state of preservation, made possible by the eruption of Vesuvius, now allows historians to recreate the day-to-day lives of Pompeii’s inhabitants.


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Dr Marion Dolan received her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Medieval manuscripts, minoring in Medieval architecture and history of astronomy. She is the author of several books including The Monk and the Antichrist: A Novel of Passion in the Middle Ages

Top Image: Fresco from the Sala di Grande Dipinto, Scenes in the Villa de Misteri (Pompeii).(Public Domain)

By: Dr Marion Dolan



Dr Marion Dolan is retired from the University of Pittsburgh where she was an adjunct professor in the history of art and architecture and lectured for the Osher Lifelong Learning program at Carnegie-Mellon University for many years. She published a... Read More
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