Skip to main content

This paper examines the decorative scheme of the House of Octavius Quartio (II,2,2), also known as the House of Loreius Tiburtinus. It was excavated in three phases, in 1916, 1918, and 1933-35. Although the atrium and some of the rooms off of it were seriously damaged in bombing during the Second World War, the key areas of the house are in a relatively good state of repair and the excavations have been well published. The house has been the object of several excellent studies, including Paul Zanker’s, in which the house is examined as an example of the “urban villa”, a type that Zanker identified among Pompeian homes that adopted some of the trappings of the great country estates of the Roman aristocracy that dotted the coastline of Campania. The last owner of the house, it would thus appear, was keen to demonstrate that his good taste and refinement were on a par with the highly educated elite.

It is therefore particularly noteworthy that in the most prominent areas of the house the owner aimed to exhibit his interests in literature and that in doing so he deployed themes from Greek and Roman poetry according to distinctions of genre. The house has no tablinum, so the largest and presumably most important room is one usually identified as a triclinium. Its walls are decorated with a unique double frieze, depicting epic themes associated with Troy. The large, upper frieze depicts scenes from the life of Hercules, with special emphasis on his role at Troy, freeing Hesione, the daughter of Laomedon, and investing Priam as king. The smaller, lower frieze depicts scenes from the Iliad, beginning with Apollo devastating the Greek camp with plague and culminating with the ransom of Hector’s body. The choice of serious mythological—and in this case epic—themes for this room is consistent with practices in other Pompeian homes. What is unique about this home is the deployment of Ovidian themes in the garden on which this room opens. Most prominent among the paintings in the garden area are scenes from the third and fourth books of the Metamorphoses: Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Actaeon. They are set in a woodland context, which is accentuated by the sculptural decorations and the backdrop along the north wall, Orpheus among the beasts, a scene that also evokes the Ovid’s poem.

Inscriptional evidence from Pompeii suggests a rather widespread familiarity with elegiac poetry and Hellenistic narrative. Many homes reflect these interests in their arrangement of wall paintings, but the House of Octavius Quartio appears to have been home to a true fan of Ovid. When considered together with the decorative schemes of other homes in Pompeii and the literary graffiti, it is possible to draw some tentative conclusions about the reading habits of the last inhabitants.