Pompeii’s Richest Residence: The House of the Faun

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
December 13, 2023
Reconstruction of the House of the Faun, one of the most luxurious villas in Pompeii, destroyed in 79.
The House of the Faun, constructed in the 2nd century BC during the Samnite period (180 BC), was a grand Hellenistic palace that was framed by peristyle in Pompeii, Italy.
The famous Alexander Mosaic, showing Alexander the Great was found in that exact villa.

Front Facade

Tour guide and tourists at the entrance to the House of the Faun in Pompeii, ancient Roman city, Italy.Martin Godwin/Getty Images

Although scholars are somewhat divided about the exact dates, it is likely that the first construction of the House of the Faun as it is today was built about 180 BCE. Some small changes were made over the next 250 years, but the house remained pretty much as it was constructed until August 24, 79 CE, when Vesuvius erupted, and the owners either fled the city or died with other residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The House of the Faun was nearly completely excavated by Italian archaeologist Carlo Bonucci between October 1831 and May 1832, which is in a way too bad—because modern techniques in archaeology could tell us quite a bit more than they could have 175 years ago.

Floor Plan of the House of the Faun

Plan of the House of the Faun (August Mau 1902).August Mau 1902

The floor plan of the House of the Faun illustrates its immensity—it covers an area of over 30,000 square feet. The size is comparable to eastern Hellenistic palaces—and scholars consider it a modified Hellenistic style rather than Roman because of its organization and layout.

The detailed floor plan shown in the image was published by German archaeologist August Mau in 1902, and it is somewhat out of date, particularly with reference to the identification of the purposes of the smaller rooms. But it shows the main flashy bits of the house—two atria and two peristyles. The room styles at the House of the Faun fit the typology of Greek elite houses described by the Roman architect Vitruvius (80–15 BCE), rather than those typical of Roman houses.

A Roman atrium is a rectangular open-air court, sometimes paved and sometimes with an interior basin for catching rainwater, called an impluvium. The two atria are the open rectangles at the front of the building (on the left side of this image)—the one with the “Dancing Faun” that gives the House of the Faun its name is the upper one. A peristyle is a large open atrium surrounded by columns. That huge open space at the back of the house is the largest one; the central open space is the other.

Entryway Mosaic

Entryway Mosaic, House of the Faun at Pompeii.jrwebbe

At the entryway of the House of the Faun is this mosaic welcome mat, calling Have! or Hail to you! in Latin. The fact that the mosaic is in Latin, rather than the local languages Oscan or Samnian, is interesting because if the archaeologists are right, this house was built before the Roman colonization of Pompeii when Pompeii was still a backwater Oscan/Samnian town. Either the owners of the House of the Faun had pretensions of Latin glory, or the mosaic was added after the Roman colony was established about 80 BCE, or after the Roman siege of Pompeii in 89 BCE by the infamous Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Roman scholar Mary Beard points out that it’s a bit of a pun that the richest house in Pompeii would use the English word “Have” for a welcome mat. They certainly did.

Tuscan Atrium and Dancing Faun

The Dancing Faun at the House of the Faun in Pompeii.Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The bronze statue of a dancing faun is what gives the House of the Faun its name—and it is located where it would have been seen by people peering in the main doorway of the House of the Faun.

The statue is set in the so-called ‘Tuscan’ atrium. The Tuscan atrium is floored with a layer of plain black mortar, and in the center of it is a strikingly white limestone impluvium. The impluvium—a basin for collecting rainwater—is paved with a pattern of colored limestone and slate. The statue stands above the impluvium, giving the statue a reflecting pool.

The statue at the House of the Faun ruins is a copy; the original is in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Reconstructed Little Peristyle and Tuscan Atrium

Reconstructed Little Peristyle and Tuscan Atrium of the House of the Faun, Pompeii.Giorgio Consulich / Collection:Getty Images News / Getty Images

If you look north of the dancing faun you’ll see a roped off mosaic floor backed by an eroded wall. Beyond the eroded wall, you can see trees—that is the peristyle in the center of the house.

Essentially, a peristyle is an open space surrounded by columns. The House of the Faun has two of these. The smallest, which is the one you can see over the wall, was about 65 feet (20 meters) east/west by 23 ft (7 m) north/south. The reconstruction of this peristyle includes a formal garden; the owners may or may not have had a formal garden here when it was in use.

Little Peristyle and Tuscan Atrium ca. 1900

Peristyle Garden, House of the Faun, Giorgio Sommer Photograph.Giorgio Sommer

One major concern at Pompeii is that by excavation and revealing the building ruins, we’ve exposed them to the destructive forces of nature. Just to illustrate how the house has changed in the last century, this is a photograph of essentially the same location as the previous one, taken about 1900 by Giorgio Sommer.

It might seem a bit odd to complain about the damaging effects of rain, wind, and tourists on the ruins of Pompeii, but the volcanic eruption which dropped a heavy ashfall killing many of the residents preserved the houses for us for some 1,750 years.

The Alexander Mosaic

Mosaic of Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius III.Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Alexander Mosaic, a reconstructed part of which can be seen at the House of the Faun today, was removed from the floor of the House of the Faun and placed in the Archaeology Museum of Naples.

When first discovered in the 1830s, the mosaic was thought to represent a battle scene from the Iliad; but architectural historians are now convinced that the mosaic represents the defeat of the last Achmaenid dynasty ruler King Darius III by Alexander the Great. That battle, called the Battle of Issus, took place in 333 BCE, only 150 years before the House of the Faun was built.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic

Detail of a mosaic originally located in the House of the Faun, Pompeii – Detail of: ‘The Battle of Issus’ Roman Mosaic.Leemage/Corbis via Getty Image

The style of mosaic used to recreate this historic battle of Alexander the Great defeating the Persians in 333 BCE, is called opus vermiculatum or “in the style of worms.” It was made using tiny (about .15 of an inch and under 4 mm) cut pieces of colored stones and glass, called “tesserae,” set in worm-like rows and placed into the floor. The Alexander mosaic used approximately 4 million tesserae.

Other mosaics that were in the House of the Faun and can now be found at the Archaeological Museum of Naples include the Cat and Hen Mosaic, the Dove Mosaic, and the Tiger Rider Mosaic.

Large Peristyle, House of the Faun

Large Peristyle, House of the Faun, Pompeii.Sam Galison

The House of the Faun is the largest, most opulent house discovered at Pompeii to date. Although most of it was built in the early second century BC (circa 180 BC), this peristyle was originally a large open space, probably a garden or field. The peristyle’s columns were added later and were at one point altered from Ionic style to Doric style.

This peristyle, which measures some 65×82 ft (20×25 m) square, had the bones of two cows in it when it was excavated in the 1830s.