Until Mt. Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii on August 24, 79 CE, it was a thriving city with a population of around 12,000 people. Pompeii was well connected to the Roman maritime trade network and likely received a lot of traffic from ships entering and leaving the port. The city had anything these visitors (or locals) could want or need—an amphitheater, an elaborate public park, and a religious and political forum. There were even houses for Mystery Religions, and, of course, there were brothels.
Despite the generally male-oriented society of the Roman Empire, women in Pompeii seemed to have been able to carve out some surprising economic autonomy in the bustling city. There is evidence of women from the city loaning money to each other, managing businesses, and even owning the enterprises completely. Of these influential women in Pompeii, none showed more business acumen than Julia Felix, who possessed a villa near the town amphitheater.
Archeologists and historians hypothesize that Julia Felix began to develop her large estate into an economic marvel around 62 CE, when an earthquake gave her a reason to begin renovations on her property. She proved to be quite the entrepreneur, with her businesses catering to all types of people. By the time Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii in 79 CE, Julia Felix’ villa complex had become something of a luxurious resort hotel.
Her target clientele was the wealthy elite of society. Julia Felix advertised her private bath as a club where only the genteel were invited. She also rented some of her villa’s rooms to respectable people visiting Pompeii. She also had a beautiful garden and a swimming pool and, for added aesthetics, much of the villa was decorated with columns, statues and frescos. For those who wanted more than rooms, beauty and bathing, the complex also was outfitted with fully functioning shops. Catering to the lower classes, her villa also had either a tavern, restaurant or diner that served food and drink, which could then be consumed on built-in tables and benches. To bring in clients to her establishment, she had at least one sign erected outside of her villa to advertise for potential customers.
It is impossible to know how wealthy Julia Felix truly was, but the truth was probably very impressive. With Pompeii thriving as an economic port city, and with her ability to provide services for both the elite and common people of the city, she had the potential for an incredible amount of income—especially considering her location just a short distance from the city amphitheater. In all likelihood, Julia Felix was a very, very prosperous ancient woman.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Pompeii: The Dead Speak. Documentary published by The Smithsonian, 2016.