Pompeii is the site of a Roman town that was covered by ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD preserving it until it was rediscovered during the excavations for a water channel in 1599. The site has provided an insight into life in Roman times and is one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions.
Dating back to the 6th century BCE, Pompeii has connections to the Samnites, Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians, although it is most famous as a thriving Roman town and harbour destroyed by the volcano Mount Vesuvius when it erupted on the 24th August 79 AD. Although due to a charcoal inscription found in 2018 during excavations in Pompeii, it is now believed that this may have happened in October 79 AD.
Prior to the eruption, the area around Vesuvius had been experiencing minor earth tremors and there had been a significant earthquake about 17 years before so although concerned no one understood the event that was to occur or its significance.
The eruption, which occurred over a number of days, covered Pompeii with over 4 metres of ash and pumice. The roofs of the houses weren’t designed to withstand the weight that was imposed on them resulting in their collapse, although domed buildings such as the baths were able to withstand the weight and remained intact.
Although pumice is a rock, it is very light and would do little damage if some protection is used, people were, therefore, able to escape, something that thousands of people did in fact do. The several hundred people who did stay were to meet an agonising death, something that was shown by the plaster casts moulds taken of those who died when their bodies were covered by ash which solidified.
The pouring of plaster into the spaces formed by where their bodies produced a cast showing the position they were in when they died as well as their features and expressions.
The sudden abandonment and covering preserved the town which was to remain lost until it was rediscovered during the excavations for a water channel in 1599. Over the years much of the site has been excavated although a large proportion has still to be revealed. It has, however, provided a time capsule that has provided a detailed insight into Roman life in the 1st century.
Today Pompeii is situated several miles from the sea but in the 1st century, it was a thriving trading port. Visitors today generally enter the site by the Marina Gate one of seven gates of the town.
The road from the gate leads to the forum with Mount Vesuvius in the background.
Within the Forum is the Basilica, this was the law courts and was constructed near the end of the 2nd century BCE. It has 28 fluted Columns built of brick which were covered with stucco, a fine plaster.
The Forum contained a number of temples including the Temple of Apollo with its statue of the god from the cult imported from Greece. The bronze statue that is on the site is a copy, the original is in the museum in Naples.
The Temple of Jupiter stands at the far end of the Forum with arches on either side. The Temple of Jupiter was first built around the middle of the 2nd century BCE and that was damaged in the earthquake in 62 BCE and repairs were still going on when Vesuvius erupted.
On the right of the temple is the arch of Emperor Tiberius and through that the arch of Emperor Caligula.
On passing through them visitors enter the commercial and residential districts and are able to wander around the streets. These are paved with large blocks of stone and are bordered by curbs and pedestrian walkways. Raised stones were placed at regular intervals in order that pedestrians could cross the streets without getting themselves dirty from any water and sewage that flowed along the streets and drinking water fountains are located throughout the town.
Shops and houses, as well as the public amenities, can be visited. The graffiti can be seen on the walls and written evidence provides details of the life of its inhabitants.
Many artifacts and everyday items can also be seen and the discovery of a number of skeletons is providing a lot of information about their lives and diets.
A number of bakeries and shops existed throughout the city providing fast food, generally the rich ate at home while the poor ate out.
Shops selling all types of goods have been found, many with traces of those goods which can indicate the agricultural production of the area and the goods imported.
An important part of Roman life was the baths, and it was a Roman custom to visit the baths daily, both for cleanliness and to conduct business or meet friends.
Entertainment was also important, and Pompeii had theatres and gymnasiums.
It also had a number of brothels, something that was an accepted part of Roman life. The paintings on the walls giving an indication of the use of the building.
A part of Roman life was gladiatorial combat and each town would have its amphitheatre and gladiator barracks.
Pompeii had some very rich residents with their house being lavishly decorated with exquisitely crafted mosaics and painted frescos: Many of the wall paintings still being extremely vibrant.
A number of the houses are particularly famous: The House of Faun, so named due to the statue of a dancing faun - a figure from Roman Mythology having the body of a man and the horns, ears, tail, and legs of a goat. The Tragic Poet’s House contains a mosaic which is now commonly used as a beware of the dog sign.
The House of Vettius belonged to two wealthy merchants. It contains some beautiful paintings (still in their original positions). Much of what is known of Roman painting in the period 300 BCE to AD 79 is based on the well-preserved discoveries made in houses at Pompeii.
Pompeii is one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.
To watch a presentation given on Pompeii and Herculaneum by Ron Gatepain as part of a lecture programme on Iconic Buildings and sites on a cruise ship, click on the image below.