Pompeii’s real life heroines: Julia Felix
Updated: May 20, 2022
Dr Sophie Hay is an archaeologist who has worked extensively on the excavations in Pompeii during the 19 years she was based in Italy. She is currently working at the University of Cambridge on another Pompeii research project – The Bar of Amarantus and his neighbours - as well as a book about 'The Forgotten Women of Pompeii', which looks at the work of women archeologists. She can be found online here and is on Twitter as @pompei79
I asked Dr Hay about one of her favourite Roman women in Pompeii – the wealthy landlord and entrepreneur, Julia Felix. This was to help my research for The House with the Golden Door, in which Julia is reimagined as a fictional character, but I found Dr Hay's answers so fascinating, I'm also sharing it here on my blog!
What are the central facts we know about Julia Felix?
After a farmer had ploughed up one of the marble columns that once adorned the portico of the Praedia (estate) of Julia Felix interest in this area of Pompeii was piqued and excavations were begun on 2nd April 1755 and directed by Alcubierre. In Feb 1756 the building was finally identified as the Praedia of Julia Felix through the discovery of the dipinto on the north façade of the building:
after Cooley & Cooley, 2004. Pompeii: A Sourcebook. p 171
Photo: Sophie Hay
From this inscription we discover that the owner of the complex is JULIA FELIX. ‘Daughter of Spurius’ means ‘illegitimate’.
We know that she is not an elite member of society and is probably low born. Some think that she may have descended from Imperial freedmen. The name Julia has been associated with the Julio-Claudians and hence she may be related to an ex-slave of the Imperial dynasty and it has even been suggested she may have had their patronage. But, whatever her background, she is an entrepreneur and evidently, with her name being used in the publicity to rent out her apartments and commercial units, she is in control of her property and not her husband. Is she a widow, single, or working outside of her husband’s control (which is also a possibility)? We do not know but in any event it was possible for a woman to own property and evidently make money from it. Guardians were usually required to control the activities surrounding property if there was not a father or husband to do this but it was possible to bypass this formality and that may have been what Julia was doing.
We also know that she was trying to attract a certain type of clientele – respectable and well to do rather than any riff raff.
Julia Felix's Portico and gardens. Photo: Sophie Hay
We know that she owned the property around the time just after the earthquake in AD 62/63. At this moment the City was in a state of rebuilding and she may have deliberately come to Pompeii to profit from this. Again, we are not sure. In any event she had enough money to buy two insula blocks and enough sway with the aediles to convince them to remove the bisecting road and join the blocks together. No mean feat. This then created one of the largest properties in Pompeii.
From the rental notice we may assume her goal was to make money and use her estate in a variety of ways to earn an income. This really tells us she is not an elite member of society who would more likely use benefaction and patronage to gain popularity and increase their power within the city. Julia needed to make money to live.
In the 1950s, when the garden area was excavated properly, they found the skeleton of a woman. The body was found with four hemispherical gold earrings, a gold filigree necklace with threaded pearls and a green pendant, and two gold rings of which one had an oval carnelian stone set in it with an engraving of Mercury. There is nothing to indicate who this woman was but could it be Julia herself clutching her portable wealth trying in vain to escape? We don’t know but it is very tempting to think it was…
What is so special about her complex?
It is one of the largest properties in Pompeii. It is also unique in Pompeii as it is a privately-owned complex designed to incorporate, shops, dining areas, private bathing, accommodation, and to satisfy general “otium” – leisure time.
Over half the property is given over to fruit trees and divided by wooden fences and is just a pleasant place to wander, contemplate and walk with other patrons. Julia really tries to create a sense of an oasis in the City with this layout in my opinion.
This holds true for the built up part of the property. The main residence centres around an ornamental water feature which runs the length of the garden area. It has these little bridges spanning the canal and on the east side a grotto type feel with rustic benches and niches with statuary inside. The sound of running water would do much to soothe and add to the tranquil atmosphere she was trying to create for guests.
The water feature with Vesuvius behind. Photo: Elodie Harper
The dining room decorated in expensive blue lapis paint depicting a Nilotic scene with a marble triclinium and water fountain was another way to transport the guests to another world. With the little shrine at one end of the canal dedicated to Isis I do wonder whether the idea was that the canal represented the Nile. The shrine was very elaborate and is recreated in the Museum of Naples. Inside was found the bronze tripod with three stayrs as legs and yes, with huge phalluses (that is now in the Secret Cabinet).
Marble triclinium with water fountain. Photo: Sophie Hay
The other residential area of the house had many frescoes in it too including the famous Apollo and the Muses fresco now in the Louvre. Does this show Julia in a light of being well educated? Perhaps. Potentially this message can be deduced from the fresco of writing equipment and a sack of money. But all these frescoes may well have already been in the house prior to her occupancy.
Fresco of the muse Clio. Photo: Sophie Hay
The built up area is cunningly designed so as to link all the facets together – the baths to the street but also to the main property and the ornamental garden with this incredible water feature running its length. The bath complex is interesting as it too is mentioned for rental in the painted notice. It is decorated with a fabulous mosaic – again no expense spared. It is also the only bath complex in this part of Pompeii and undoubtedly was a popular haunt as a direct consequence of the main public baths being closed due to damage during the earthquake. The facilities of the ‘Venus Baths’ were also surprisingly sophisticated for a privately own complex.
How heavily do we rely on her frescoes for information about daily life in Pompeii?
The fresco of the Forum scene that once decorated the atrium is incredibly useful to get a glimpse at everyday life in Pompeii. We must think of it as a staged and possibly idealistic representation but nevertheless it is the closest we get to a “photo” of a market day in the forum.
Forum scene. Photo: Sophie Hay
The gentlemen looking at the notices on the banners, the sellers of textiles with no apparent stall but cloth draped over him, the pots laid out on the floor on matting next to a table of utensils, the shoe seller, another pot seller (again with no official stall) are incredibly rich with information which is backed up in the archaeological record in terms of artefacts found in Pompeii and the textiles we see in frescoes. Other scenes are less well understood. The scene of a public flogging, a possible school lesson and a girl being sold or admonished or something else? The sight of donkeys/mules in the forum is to be expected but the wheeled vehicle less so as the forum was closed off at all entrances to wheeled traffic. Groups of men chatting and trying a drink/food are great – daily business was often conducted in the Forum so this gives a wonderful picture of this aspect of life.
Why is she your favourite Roman woman? And what sort of woman do you imagine her to have been?
I love her precisely because she is not an elite woman or a high priestess using her family name and wealth to get on in society. She comes from non-elite stock but may have had a bit of money. The fact she is a savvy entrepreneur who possibly took advantage of the situation in Pompeii post earthquake fills me with admiration. She seems to have had guts and determination and I think a persuasive nature (the removal of the road must have taken some persuading, as the area of the amphitheatre would have been traffic heavy). I hope she was kind with it and didn’t steam roll things but at the same time she must have had a feisty side to her. It is common to find women in the workplace - especially freedwomen or freeborn - but to own property on this scale and run it efficiently to create an income took some ingenuity. To mix running a business based on bathing, dining and rented accommodation took some organisation. To me she stands out for taking this on in a male dominated society.
Photo: Sophie Hay
When I give talks about Julia Felix I usually take a “Through the Keyhole” type approach: looking at the architecture of the complex, the decoration of the house, and the finds we know that came from there and ask ‘who would live in a house like this?’ It’s a really useful exercise and from it I infer what she may have been like as a person. Using the constant contrast between luxurious and expensive elements of her house (the marble columns are the only ones known from a private residence, the exotic Nilotic scenes in the dining room, the exotic shrine to Isis, the bath complex etc…) with the more mundane aspects of the frescoes depicting loaves of bread and eggs as well as the famous Forum fresco depicting everyday scenes from Pompeii I say that she has opulent taste but is at the same time very grounded.
Photo: Sophie Hay
Not a person above her station and grandiose – the painted sign declaring her need for renters echoes this – but at the same time comfortable with richer folk and their elaborate and discerning tastes. The dining areas also provide an indication of this – the bar on the street with its very functional area (even an upright one with benches) compared to the dining area within the property which had a marble-clad triclinium with a water fountain: one foot grounded and one foot steeped in the finer qualities.
It may be argued that some of these architectural aspects and decoration pre-date Julia’s occupancy but the fact she left them in place and possibly added to them demonstrates her awareness for providing high end luxury to her clients. She definitely knew her intended market and I can only hope she made a huge success of it in the years her complex functioned.