About the Venus Pompeiana Project (VPP)

Schematic plan of Pompeii showing the location of the Sanctuary of Venus (area shaded in grey)
Schematic plan of Pompeii showing the location of the Sanctuary of Venus (area shaded in grey)

The Roman goddess Venus was the patron deity of the city of Pompeii, and her temple occupied a prominent location at the southern edge of the site, overlooking the river plain below. The Venus Pompeiana Project (VPP) is a collaboration between the University of Missouri-Columbia and Mount Allison University, under the auspices of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, to resume study of the Sanctuary of Venus at Pompeii. VPP aims to clarify the results of past excavations (most recently) between 2004 and 2007, which were only partially published, and to follow up on questions raised by that work. VPP’s pilot season, in July 2017, was aimed toward identifying the extent and organization of the first sanctuary, and providing greater resolution on its date.

View of the temple and sanctuary of Venus in 1900 after Mau’s excavations (with Mount Vesuvius in the background)
View of the temple and sanctuary of Venus in 1900 after Mau’s excavations (with Mount Vesuvius in the background)

Because of its sudden destruction in 79 CE, Pompeii often leaves visitors with the overall impression of it being a single-phase site frozen in time. On the contrary, the exceptionally well-preserved remains we see today are part of a palimpsest of continuous occupation, stretching back 700 years or more. Although the earlier phases of the site are difficult to reach on an extensive scale due to the later architecture masking the deeper layers, the progress of targeted archaeological research both at key public monuments and across private neighborhoods has revealed a much more complex picture for the settlement history. Recent scholarship has focused particularly on the growth of urban development in the 3rd and 2nd c. BCE, a phase known as the late Samnite period, named after the indigenous Italic people (the Samnites) that occupied the site since the 5th c. BCE. This period has been emphasized as a true “golden age” for the local community. A related, and hotly debated, aspect is the cultural impact of the Roman colonization program after 80 BCE: the views range from radical transformation brought about by the newcomers to a more gradual assimilation process in which the local Samnite ruling class was actively involved.

State plan of the sanctuary of Venus with indication of the trenches surveyed in the 2017 pilot season (Dan Diffendale)
State plan of the sanctuary of Venus with indication of the trenches surveyed in the 2017 pilot season (Dan Diffendale)

The Temple of Venus has a long history of investigation. Sogliano was the first to identify the site as the Temple of Venus, in 1898. Intermittent investigations continued over the next century, including the important but unpublished excavations directed by Maiuri before the Second World War. In the 1990s, a project directed by Maureen Carroll identified a series of planting pits within the precinct. Rich archaeological data was collected throughout the 2004–2007 campaigns by Emmanuele Curti, providing evidence that predates the creation of the monumental temple podium and triporticus. This is crucial for assessing and interpreting the degree of cultural change brought about by the Roman conquest of the town. Resuming activities at the Sanctuary of Venus to complement previous work will considerably improve our knowledge of the earliest phases of occupation, and thus of the character of the original cult, allowing us to identify possible changes in religious practice at the site. Few other cult places in Pompeii can provide such detailed contextual information. While remarkable in terms of architectural remains and associated votive deposits, the unsystematic nature of early excavations at most religious sites hinders the possibility of reconstructing their sequence of use. The work of the Venus Pompeiana Project, then, contributes to the current debate on the religious and social history of Pompeii and on the broader implications of Roman imperialism.

Venus standing on a quadriga of elephants. Fresco from the ''Officina di Verecundus'' (IX 7, 5) in Pompeii.
Venus standing on a quadriga of elephants. Fresco from the ''Officina di Verecundus'' (IX 7, 5) in Pompeii.

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