This paper discusses the concept of ‘the public’ as used in public archaeology, and by doing so, considers the aims of public archaeology and their specific application to a Roman villa in Somma Vesuviana, Italy. Public archaeology emerged in the 1970s, departing from the traditional view of archaeology by looking outside the academic discipline and the social framework and structures underpinning archaeology. Although it is essential to define clearly ‘the public’ in considering the aims of public archaeology, there seem to be two different concepts of ‘the public’: one associated with the state and another with the people, though both are used interchangeably. In order to overcome this difference, Habermas’ idea of the public sphere is considered, since it may potentially encourage ‘private’ non-archaeologists to engage in an open, democratic debate about archaeology. If public archaeology is to strive for the realisation of an ‘archaeology for the public’, its aim should be to create an open, participatory and rational-critical debate, which is presumably the only way to integrate public opinions into decisions about archaeology. Although managing this debate would not be easy, a case study explores how archaeologists might do so.