Priestess and Property Developer
Lying in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples, Pompeii is an enduring reminder of the power of nature and the ordinary people who lived in the complex, advanced and often cruel Roman world. Once a large town with a busy port, Pompeii was buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, and now provides us with a unique insight into the lives of provincial Romans during the 1st century CE.
Amongst these people lived Eumachia, a priestess of a public cult (possibly of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture). The daughter of a wealthy wine merchant – lucky thing – Eumachia was married to a politician called Marcus Numistrius Fronto (rather unhelpfully we may add, as this was also their son’s name).
Eumachia was exceptional as she personally funded the construction of at least one public building in Pompeii, in addition to her own tomb, adorned with an Amazonian frieze – very sassy. The construction of public buildings was a means of self-promotion for the political elite, enabling them to demonstrate their wealth and generosity to the people. Intended as a tool to acquire favour amongst the voting public, it was usually male individuals who had the resources and inclination to make such gestures. That Eumachia’s name graces a large public building in the Forum, the heart of Pompeii, is telling of her status, wealth and influence.
The so-called Eumachia Building is thought to have been used as a wool market, and bears the hallmarks of a fashionable Roman building at the time – who doesn’t love a good colonnade? More importantly for us, the building bears an inscription which outlines Eumachia commissioned the building with her own funds, in her name and that of her son, Marcus Numistrius Fronto, and dedicated the building to the Imperial cult of Concord and Piety.
By mentioning her son’s name on the inscription, Eumachia was ensuring that Marcus was also linked to this generous donation and that he held some sway with the local population and the elite. This may have helped him with his future political career, the expected path of a young, wealthy Roman male – no matter how clueless they were, think George W. Bush or Boris Johnson in a toga.
However, the inscription was a way by which Eumachia could ensure that her name was forever associated with the building and the generous gesture to the Pompeian people. Clearly, Eumachia was willing to play by (and possibly slightly bend) the rules, whilst ensuring that her son could embark on a political career, and that her name would be remembered for prosperity.
We have evidence to suggest that Eumachia’s donation to the town was a success, both for her son and for her own image. In 3 CE, a Marcus Numistrius Fronto was elected to the position of duumvir (a town magistrate). Granted, we cannot be certain if this was the son or his father – original names were not one of the Romans’ strong suits – but we’d prefer to think that Eumachia’s clever ploy worked.
Whatever the outcome for her son, Eumachia was thanked by members of the public with a statue. Erected by the Guild of Fullers (cloth workers), Eumachia’s statue was discovered in the building which now bears her name. It depicts Eumachia as a traditional Roman matron, wearing a long stola (a long tunic worn by respectable women in ancient Roman society) and with her head veiled, a nod to her role as a priestess. Eumachia may appear as the traditional Roman matron but, as we continue to discover, appearances can be deceptive.
Berry, J. The Complete Pompeii. London: Thames and Hudson.
Wood, S.E. Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C. – A.D. 68. Leiden: Brill.
Zanker, P. 1998. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.