Charity Begins At Home: Eumachia And Pompeii

by Dr Liz Gloyn

Eumachia, daughter of Lucius and mother of Marcus, citizen of Pompeii, helps us understand a particular kind of charity at work in the Roman world. Euergetism, which means the giving of public gifts to a community or settlement, was an exceptionally common form of philanthropy in the Roman period. Rich citizens might sponsor banquets, gladiatorial games, chariot racing competitions, or foot the cost for the construction of buildings designed for the public good such as religious temples, public porticos (covered pathways or porches) and baths. These gifts were often accompanied by a statue of the benefactor in commemoration of their charitable act.

            You would be forgiven for assuming that women did not participate in euergetism, since the motivations for doing so were usually political; politicians made donations to curry favour with votes for elections or otherwise increase their profile, making the emperor the public benefactor par excellence. Women were not formally permitted to hold political office within the systems of Roman government, and our literary sources are particularly harsh about those women who tried to circumvent these restrictions; a quick dip into Tacitus and Suetonius reveals portraits of power-hungry imperial women who will stop at nothing to achieve their own ambitions and those of their male relatives. However, the material culture that survives tells a very difficult story about women’s involvement in political and civic life, particularly in cities away from Rome. 

            The major evidence for Eumachia’s euergetism is a large building in the Forum of Pompeii, probably built in the first decade A.D. and which survived the eruption of Vesuvius. Nobody knows for certain what it was for; theories include a wool warehouse, an auction house, a basilica for transacting public and legal business, and a building for ritual observance of the imperial cult. It is the second-largest building in the Forum, with a deep porch, a colonnaded courtyard, and a covered passage running along the edges of the courtyard. Nobody would have been able to miss it – or the extravagant statement it made about the wealth of the donor. The inscription on the building reads:

Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, in her own name and that of her son Marcus Numistrius Fronto, built a porch, a covered walkway and a portico to Concordia Augusta and to Pietas with her own money, and dedicated them.

Inside the building, excavators found a statue of a woman on a pedestal with the following inscription: The fullers – to Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess.

Statue of Eumachia, showing the base 
(image: WikiCommons)

While we only have a few lines of text, we can work out a lot from them about Eumachia and what might have lain behind her grand civic gift. We are helped out not just by these inscriptions, but from others around Pompeii which talk about the family she married into, the Numistrii Frontones, as well as the tomb complex built for her household just outside Pompeii, which is the largest found in the city.   

            First, the building inscription tells us that Eumachia was a priestess, holding an office in Pompeii; to be a sacerdos publica was to hold an extremely prestigious religious position. While the function and status of priesthoods varied from town to town in the Roman empire, taking on this role allowed women to participate in the civic life outside formal political structures. Other evidence from Pompeii suggests the majority of women who made benefactions were also priestesses, implying either that there were expectations that priestesses would act as benefactors, or that the public profile of the role made this kind of action possible. We don’t know precisely what she was priestess of from this inscription, but priestesses at Pompeii served one or both of Venus Pompeiana or Ceres. Her decision to dedicate this building to Augustan Concord and to Piety taps into a particular set of moral ideas which were important during the Augustan period; dedicating this large public space to these values embodying cooperation, respect and unity sends a strong message about the sort of city she wants her dedication to support. 

Close-up of Eumachia
(image: WikiCommons)

            From the dedication on the statue base, we can see Eumachia was well-regarded by Pompeii’s fullers, those who cleaned and dyed wool. We know from other inscriptions that the Numistrii Frontones made their money from fulling, so this connection comes from Eumachia’s husband rather than her own family. This inscription has often been interpreted as meaning that Eumachia was the patroness of the fullers, that is, that she had a formal role in the functioning of a collegium or professional body representing the trade in the city; however, unlike other examples from Pompeii, Eumachia isn’t explicitly called a patrona. What seems more likely is that the family connection created between the fullers and Eumachia was honoured here with an honorific statue primarily celebrating her priesthood, and the building she dedicated to the city in that role.

Given that she herself would never hold political office, why did Eumachia choose to make this generous gift to her community? She may have wanted to advance the careers of the men in her family, so that her act served as a proxy for their reputation. Her son, Marcus Numistrius Fronto, served as duumvir (a senior municipal officer) in the city in A.D. 2/3, although he might not have successfully completed his term of office; it’s possible that this building was put up as part of a campaign to raise his political profile during or in the run-up to his election campaign. But she may also have wanted to enhance her own reputation; as the holder of a public priesthood, she already had considerable authority and visibility that this sort of benefaction would have increased further. Whatever ultimately motivated her to invest a considerable amount of time and money into this building, it stands as a memorial to her civic charity and generosity. 

Recommended Reading:

About the Author:

Dr. Liz Gloyn is a Reader in Latin Language and Literature in the Department of Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. She studied for her BA and MPhil at Cambridge, and completed her PhD at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She works on the intersections between Latin literature, ancient philosophy and gender studies. She also specialises in classical reception, where she focuses on popular culture and the history of classics as a discipline, particularly the emergence of women as professional academics. She is the author of The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (2017, Cambridge University Press) and Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture (2019, Bloomsbury). She blogs about her research and teaching, albeit infrequently, at Classically Inclined, and is a prolific Twitterer

One thought on “Charity Begins At Home: Eumachia And Pompeii

  1. I like this perspective of the common good. It stands out to me in stark contrast to the Western liberal struggle for exclusive rights to define what that is (and make policies informed by it).


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