So what is Pompeii? This Roman city in the south was named after General Pompeii. He was the one defeated by Julius Caesar, forever changing the course of Roman government. It was then that the Republic became an Empire. Originally founded by the Etruscans in the 7th century BC, it eventually became a thriving residential city by the first century AD. The only really noteworthy thing about the city is that their amphitheater fans were very enthusiastic about the hometown gladiator champions. They had team spirit. In AD 59 a riot broke out among Pompeian fans and those of rival city Nocera. Things got so out of hand that the Senate closed the amphitheater for 10 years. Talk about a serious suspension! Think of how many centuries European soccer stadiums would be closed if the same rule were applied now!
In AD 62 there was a tremendous earthquake that leveled much of the city. Reconstruction began, the ban on amphitheater games was lifted out of pity for the city’s devastation, and life was looking up for Pompeii. But not far enough up. Nobody at the time knew it, but the city was built upon an old lava flow from nearby Mt. Vesuvius. A few decades earlier, Roman geographer, Strabone, declared that the volcano was extinct and not a threat. Nobody knew about the connections between earthquakes, tremors and volcanic activity. At noon on August 24, AD 79, the mountain blew and Strabone became unemployed.
When we think of volcanic destruction our minds immediately go to rivers of hot lava burying cities in their wake. Not so in Pompeii. The city wasn’t actually destroyed by the eruption; it was buried in hot ash and pumice, preserving it instead. This pyroclastic material was hot enough to burn rooftops and most other wooden structures. It even melted some glass objects, but the majority of the city was built of brick and survived the rain of hot ash and lay buried for 1,500 years.
Most of what we know about the actual event of the eruption comes from primary source letters written by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus. After escaping the destruction of the eruption, Pliny wrote about his uncle’s death as a result of the disaster and gives us an incredible eyewitness account of the volcanic events that lasted for three days. Here’s a quote that kind of says it all. “At the same time ashes began to shower on us, not yet thickly; I turned and saw behind me a thick cloud that pressed upon us like a river, flooding the ground… as soon as we sat down, night fell; not a cloudy, moonless night, but as if in a closed room when the lights are out. We could hear the moaning of women, the wailing of children, the shouting of husbands… There were those who, afraid of death, called out for it. Getting up every once in awhile, we shook the ashes off, otherwise we would have been not merely covered but buried by them.” (Epistolae, Book VI, 16 and 20)
Pliny survived, but at least 2,000 people from Pompeii did not fare as well. Most of the inhabitants suffocated in the clouds of ash or were overcome by poisonous gasses released from the volcano and were subsequently buried. Clearly this death and destruction was a disaster for the people of Pompeii to say the least. But for archaeologists, it has been truly amazing. Not only were all the brick and stone structures preserved, but the people, animals, trees and even some food (basically anything organic) were also encased in the ashy tomb. The ash covering everything hardened and over the centuries everything organic turned to dust. This left empty places in the hardened ash. At first archaeologists didn’t do much with these empty pockets they dug up. Then in 1860 archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli began to pour plaster into these empty chambers. After it hardened he carefully removed the ashy shell and was rewarded with perfect plaster models of the people that died in the cataclysm. These haunting plaster casts are much-needed reminders that this was a real city, with real people, that really died in the eruption. They are pretty freaky to stare at, maybe as strange and eerie as the mummies of Egypt.
At this time about ¾ of the city has been excavated. Most of the homes were of working class folks arranged in neighborhoods called insula. Mixed in among the homes, just like neighborhoods here in modern Italy, you can find restaurants, stores, and markets. The center of town had temples and government buildings. Streets were paved and traffic regulated with speed bumps. Cisterns/wells were fed by aqueducts and placed throughout insula to service those not wealthy enough to afford water directly piped into their homes. There were baths complete with caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium pools. There was a separate bath area just for women. At the far end of the city there was an amphitheater, the very one closed in AD 59 due to unruly fans.
Homes faced the street and were often adjoined to a storefront. Storefronts could be closed off to the street using sliding doors. The entrance to a typical home was a porch that was gated, wooden (gone due to the burning hot ash), or bronze. Walking off the street in through the porch hallway would lead you to an open-air courtyard with a rain-fed fountain in the center called an impluvium. A roofed porch with Greek styled columns surrounded this courtyard. Doorways from the courtyard lead to bedrooms, kitchens, studies, toilettes, and eating areas. They might also lead to other patios, gardens, art collections, or household shrines. Floors were tiled with beautiful mosaic designs and the walls were often decorated with simple fresco paintings. While the mosaics are amazing, the frescoes lack the artistic quality of the more ancient Minoan and Greek work. These were not the homes of the Roman wealthy, and as such these regular Joes couldn’t afford the more skilled artists. All the same, the overall effect of the statued gardens, frescoed walls and mosaiced floors upon the gardens, patios, and courtyards is spectacular. I’d want to live here.
Here are several pictures from both Pompeii and the recovered artifacts housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum.
Much of the construction in Pompeii was of brick and tufa (a lava pumice like stone that is easily cut). Notice the walls and columns. Columns were made of brick and faced with marble.
The Pompeii Grand Theater and a mosaic now housed in the Naples Museum of Archaeology.
A bakery with grain mills.
Around the House of the Faun with mosaics of Alexander the Great, an Impluvium, and an entry “Welcome” mat. (HAVE roughly means, “hail to you”.)
Street Restaurant and Advertisements
Streets, speed bumps, ruts, and wells.
Baths, tepidarium, women’s bath.
An unexcavated street. Notice how deep the solidified ash rises above the excavated front and sidewalk area.