For a long time, the magnificent buildings of Pompeii were the center of attention. In recent years, however, the focus has been on the city’s “little people”. For example, by presenting a street snack bar. Now the “bakery prison” was presented. In this underground dungeon there was a kind of grain mill. A number of slaves and two donkeys probably lived, slept, worked and died in the narrow space. The room itself had no daylight, only some light came through another room into the barred dungeon.

The iron bars on the bakery’s window were intended to prevent the enslaved workers from escaping, Gabrielzuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, told the New York Times. In the narrow space there were four millstones and a path of depressions for the animals. These had to be moved in “a kind of choreography,” sayszuchtriegel. “This room was so small that two donkeys couldn’t pass through at the same time, so they always had to be careful to stay in sync with the others in some way, which helped them.” The slave prison marks the lowest level of life in the city. The bakery in Pompeii paints “a very harsh and gloomy picture” of life there, saidzuchtriegel.

The bakery and the mill belonged to a larger residential building, where political wall inscriptions were found that called for people to vote for Aulus Rustius Verus in the election for aedile. It is believed that the house belonged to one of his freedmen. That would also fit into the picture. In ancient times, freedmen, former slaves, were known to treat their own slaves particularly poorly. At the time of the volcanic eruption, work was being done on the house, so the mill was not in operation. That’s why no dead people were found there. It would be typical if the slaves had spent their entire lives there under inhumane conditions.

In the empire, slaves also formed a multi-class society. At the top were educated secretaries and administrators who were often close to their masters and were regularly freed. As freedmen, they strengthened the family of their former masters as loyal clients. Some became immensely wealthy; Trimalchio’s banquet depicts the celebration of a vulgar nouveau riche. Julia Acne was a freedwoman of the Emperor Nero. She was so rich and powerful that she dared to defy the damnation to which Nero had fallen through the punishment of damnatio memoriae, the outlawing of memory, and organized a magnificent funeral for the dead emperor.

The pure labor slaves, on the other hand, were viewed as cheap consumer goods and were literally tortured to death. Hundreds of them were buried at major construction sites. The second century AD poet Apuleius wrote about them. The workers were often covered with “bluish welts,” their foreheads were branded and their feet were chained together. “They, too, were pitifully pale, their eyes so dimmed by the searing heat of that smoke-filled darkness that they could hardly see. Like wrestlers sprinkled with dust before a fight, they turned grossly white with mealy ash.” The donkeys were not treated any better. “Their flanks were cut to the bone by the relentless flogging. Their hooves were strangely deformed by the repeated circling, and their entire skin was stained with mange and hollowed by hunger.”

The brutal working conditions are a shocking contrast to one of the city’s most famous portraits. It shows Terentius Neo with his wife. He was also a baker, and the fresco emphasizes his wife’s equal status with numerous details. If the clothes were swapped, the two would look like a beautiful Italian couple of today. And even if they are not the owners of the mill dungeon, their prosperity was based on this very inhumane treatment of slave workers.