It was a sunny and mild February afternoon when I strolled down the Via dell’Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare in first-century Pompeii. Walking over huge and uneven paving stones that once bore the full weight of horse-drawn chariots and thongs of locals, I encountered stone houses richly decorated in their interiors with mosaics and frescoes. There was a two-millennia-old snack bar where workmen long ago would sit during their lunch break. The serving counter even had round holes for trash! Pompeii is the second site on the Smithsonian Institute’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die” (Pompeii is listed in the first sub-category called “Portals of the Past”).
Of all the lost cities in the ancient world, it is the most perfectly preserved because it was literally “frozen” in time due to the volcanic eruption that destroyed it more than 2,000 years ago. Many of the city’s inhabitants were buried alive under 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice. It is estimated that around 13 percent of the total population of Pompeii died during the initial blast. With a population of about 15,000 people, approximately 2,000 people died on the 24th of August 79AD. Strangely, the residents of Pompeii did not even know that Vesuvius was a volcano because it had not erupted during the preceding 300 years. In fact, there was no word for “volcano” in the language of these ancient people!
Pliny, the Younger (61-113 AD), a magistrate in Ancient Rome and prolific author, writes that the volcano’s eruption initially caused a sense of wonder but turned quickly into terror and tragedy. His is the single surviving eyewitness account of the events on that fateful day. He writes: “The cloud was rising from a mountain – at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.’ I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash” (Pliny, Letters 6.16).
The eruption lasted two days as Mount Vesuvius spewed forth a deadly cloud of super-heated gases rising to a height of 20 miles. The molten rock, pulverized pumice, and hot ash then rained down upon a number of Roman settlements which were obliterated and buried. Pompeii and Herculaneum were the best known of these settlements. The volcanic ash was being spewed out at a tremendous rate, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings combined.
At a height of 4,200 feet and an estimated age of 17,000 years, Mount Vesuvius has erupted over 50 times or an average of about once every 340 years. But none of these eruptions was more devastating than the one that hit Pompeii on that August day. The lava flowing from the eruption can move at up to 450 mph with temperatures reaching as high as 1,830 F. It is estimated that the eruption of 79AD spewed 1.5 million tons of lava per second.
The city of Pompeii was originally settled around the 7th century BC and served as a vital port city. It was also a prime location for farming because the rich volcanic soil from earlier eruptions of Vesuvius created ideal farmlands for grapes and olive trees. But this ancient city “frozen in time” was not discovered until 1748, when workers stumbled upon it while building a palace for King Charles III. That same year, a team of Royal Engineers, dispatched by the King of Naples first began the systematic excavation of the ruins in 1748. Since then, scientists, archaeologists, scholars, historians, and ordinary tourists have crowded into Pompeii, drinking in its cobblestone streets, which remain dotted with stone houses, in order to look into Roman life “frozen” abruptly when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius suffocated and crushed hundreds of unfortunate residents.
Some scientists have suggested that, had the eruption taken place on any other day, the people of Pompeii might have stood a better chance of escaping the molten lava. This is because the wind usually blew in a southwesterly direction. This would have pushed much of the column of ash out away from the city where it would have fallen harmlessly into the Bay of Naples. But on that fateful day, the wind was blowing in a northwesterly direction, carrying the column right over Pompeii.
The historical significance of the discovery of Pompeii cannot be overstated as it furnishes specific insights into ancient Roman civilization. Like an open book, the city provides detailed information about the art, customs, trades, and everyday life of the past. When it was discovered in the 18th century, it re-emerged from the darkness of past centuries exactly as it would have been when it was unexpectedly buried in the thick layer of ash and lava.
The streets, the shops, the homes, the public places were all there to be seen. What had been one of the most active and splendid Roman centers, arose from beneath the ash to enlighten the present, more modern era about life in this ancient city. Not only its buildings, but its discovery has also informed us about what was inside these structures. These discoveries in sum constitute a detailed picture of “daily” life in Pompeii. Some houses, for example, still contain furniture and various other ornaments, including silverware, work tools, kitchenware, and bronze lamps. Researchers actually discovered various foodstuffs also “frozen in time.” There are shops with counters for serving drinks, grain mills with grindstones, workshops for manufacturing cloth, and stores selling groceries, fruit, and vegetables. On some houses there are even posters with electoral propaganda-type messages or risque jokes aimed at other citizens. There are signs over the doorways to shops that indicate the activity carried out or the name of the owner. There are elegant villas belonging to the nobility, the upscale residences of the middle class, and the more modest houses of the lower classes where several families lived together. The peasant dwellings are situated around vegetable gardens or small plots of land used for subsistence farming.
There are workshops and utility rooms that provide further evidence of the daily routine performed by workmen and slaves as well as the women of the house. Further out, on the edge of the city, stood the brothels with several squalid rooms designed as places of pleasure for sailors and travelers passing through Pompeii.
The numerous graffiti carved on the walls along the streets provides a wealth of linguistic information regarding Vulgar Latin, the form of Latin spoken colloquially rather than the literary language of the classical writers.
In the first century BC, when Pompeii was finally annexed by the Roman Empire, the city underwent a vast infrastructure upgrade. The city saw the construction of an amphitheater often cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design. Also, the city was given a new “city park” surrounded on three sides by colonnades and with a swimming pool in the center. A new aqueduct was built which provided water for more than 25 street fountains, four public baths, and a large number of private homes and businesses.
Researchers also discovered a large number of well-preserved frescoes that provide information on everyday life. These paintings have prompted a major advance in the understanding of Italian art of the first century. Had it not been for their discovery at Pompeii, virtually nothing would be known about the art of this period. Pompeii enables us today to encounter Roman civilization of two millennia ago just as it was then. Due to its remarkable state of preservation, Pompeii provides significant and detailed information regarding the customs, art, literature, and architecture, as well as a glimpse into everyday life of the people who lived there. Indeed, it may well be the richest treasure trove among all ancient archaeological sites just in terms of the sheer volume of data it provides to historians and researchers. It is truly a remarkable place to visit.
Next time: “Tikal: The Capital of Maya Civilization”