The Fresco of Terentius Neo

Wikimedia Commons

At the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy is a Roman fresco of Terentius Neo and a woman presumed to be his wife, discovered in their home in Pompeii. Considered one of the finest pieces of art from the area of Vesuvius, it is also amazing for several reasons beyond its technical quality.

The portrait is unusual in depicting husband and wife as equals, members of a confident and fashionable middle class that was rising across Rome through sheer grit. Neo was a successful baker, as the house had been modified to include a bakery, and he wears a toga, indicating he was a Roman citizen (a highly coveted status that conferred several legal rights). He holds a rotulus, a kind of scroll that suggests involvement in local politics or public affairs; there is even an inscription on the outside of the house that endorses a local politician, not unlike the yard signs of today (though a lot more permanent)

Though we do not know her name, Neo’s wife is far from secondary: She is in the foreground and at the same height as her husband. She holds a stylus and wax tablet, further emphasizing her equal status, as well as the fact that she was educated and literate (a rare thing for men and women alike at the time). It is very likely she helped manage her husband’s business and political affairs and was far from the servient homemaker.

Finally, the portrait shows realistic imperfections or peculiarities in the faces—rather than the chiseled and God-like features we’re most familiar with—which is rare in similar frescoes and brings these folks to life. One could easily imagine well-to-do couples like them in today’s society. 

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