An Italian Visit: Pompeii


Pompeii is one of the most recognized sites in the world…and for good reason.

Via Stabiana, one of the main streets of Pompeii with Vesuvio in the distance.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness forevermore.

Pliny the Younger

Since I was a child, voraciously consuming any and all written materials I could get my hands on, the City of Pompeii has been something I’ve dreamed of seeing. There was simply no way I was going to visit Italy, in particular, the Amalfi Coast and not spend some of that time exploring this amazing open-air museum of the past….not just the past….the ancient past.

Remnants of a large covered public space with Vesuvius looming beyond.

Buried under millions of tons of ash by the unexpected eruption in AD 79 the city essentially remained undisturbed for almost 1,700 years. Excavation has occurred from the 1,700’s on until today but with mixed efforts at retaining and maintaining the information that can be found buried beneath the volcanic debris. Early on the efforts were carried out for the purpose of gathering artifacts and wealth and eventually shifted to one of preservation although not before much damage was done. Financial shortfalls have occasionally led to poor maintenance efforts and struggle to protect more sensitive areas. Today, 44 hectares out of 66 have been uncovered and the remaining 22 are to be left undisturbed to protect them for future generations.

One of the many streets in Pompeii with storefronts that contained shops and “To Go” dining options.

One of the things I found MOST interesting and amazing is the grooves worn into the stone streets by the chariot wheels made of metal. It’s quite easy to see almost anywhere you go in the city. Simply standing where thousands of years ago a Roman drove his cart or chariot and still seeing the evidence of that journey is an emotional experience for me. I’m not sure how to express it but, in many ways, I’m far more intrigued with the daily lives of your everyday citizen; the shopkeeper, baker, fisherman, carpenter, mason than I am that of the rich Patrician or Governor of a town or region. I’m far more intrigued by the dinner at the house of the hardworking cafe owner than sitting at a table laid by servants. I often wonder what I could say to a citizen was I able to transport myself to his day and age? Or maybe it’s more important what he might say to me? Likely, just communicating might be a struggle as the points of reference would be so far apart. Even the night sky would look slightly different with no true North Star in place as Earth’s axis pointed somewhere between Thuban & Polaris.

One of the few casts in Pompeii of individuals discovered during the removal of ash. There are far more at the museum in Naples. Unlike most, this person appears to simply be asleep.

There were a few casts of individuals found during excavations still housed at Pompeii. There are far more at the museum in Naples and one major regret I have from our trip is that we did not spend a day in Naples specifically for the purpose of touring that museum. I feel without it I’ve missed a big part of the story of Pompeii. I wondered how I would feel seeing the casts. They represent a person in the last moments of their lives. Most likely they were terrifying, painful moments. One cast in Pompeii was of a dog. I did not include the picture here as it’s very graphic in the experience the dog had in the last moments. Many of the humans seem far less distressed but I’m certain choices were made as to which figures would be for public view. There was one small child, an infant really, on display and it would be difficult to say whether his or her cast indicated a moment of terror or simply a quiet passing due to asphyxiation.

Diagonal pattern of bricks in a typical building which were then plastered over and likely painted.

The residents of Pompeii were not strangers to geologic events. In fact, a construction methodology was used whereby cast bricks were laid in diagonal patterns because experience derived from frequent earthquakes illustrated they were much better able to withstand the earth’s trembling behavior. Indeed, the town was not destroyed by the ground moving but rather by millions of tones of the earth being dropped on it from the sky. In an ironic turn, the very earth that fell upon the city preserved it as most of the buildings were built to last a few decades at most.

Pompeii was a wealthy town with large Villas and vacation homes for the very wealthy across the Roman Empire. Many homes were very large with fountains, atriums, and ornamental stone construction. Ornate mosaics covered floors and walls and gardens were meticulously maintained. Visitors were welcomed from far away lands and entertained lavishly. As far back as 2,500 years ago people across Europe would “vacation” in the Naples area. It’s hard to comprehend but the Amphitheater of Pompeii held up to 20,000 people and would routinely be filled for sporting events. It was constructed over 150 years before Vesuvius erupted and was the earliest stone stadium ever built. 20 years before Vesuvius erupted a massive fight broke out during a sporting event and the stadium was closed for 10 years. In 2016, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame held two live concerts in the stadium, the first to have occurred since 79 AD.

Touring the baths were interesting as they are exceptionally well maintained. Artwork on the walls is still visible and most of the structural elements remain as they were almost 2,000 years ago. There are several baths in Pompeii and some of them had been in existence for almost 500 years by the time the eruption occurred. The baths were very much a Social gathering activity/location and some had libraries attached to them. The men’s and women’s areas were strictly separated although at least in one instance it’s possible from the data gathered that the bath also served as a brothel.

A toast to the resilience of mankind from the top of Mount Vesuvius.

No visit to Pompeii would be complete without a hike to the top of Mount Vesuvius. On our trip up the side of the volcano the wind was howling and it became quite chilly despite the effort. At the top a small stand sells snacks and trinkets. Also available is wine from a barrel, the grapes harvested from the slopes of Vesuvius. A toast seemed appropriate…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If you are a lover of history, the story of Pompeii is enthralling and perhaps one of the clearest views into our past. For more images from Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius visit my gallery here

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