The Story Of The Lost City Of Pompeii

CULTURE | December 21, 2019

John Martin's painting The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Source: (Wikimedia Commons).

In the south of Italy near the Bay of Naples there stood a city that went extinct but at that moment became immortal to history. The Roman city of Pompeii is a wonder of archaeology where new discoveries are occurring even after centuries of excavation.  

Mount Vesuvius as seen from Pompeii. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Pompeii was a Roman city with a long history. Archaeologist believe that the site was inhabited as early as the 10th century B.C. Pompeii grew steadily as a focal point for the agricultural lands enriched by volcanic soils of Mount Vesuvius a few miles to the north. It was well-located on the Sarno River next to the sea. The town grew to be a mixture of Greek, Etruscan, and Samnites. These people were eventually granted Roman citizenship as the colony of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum in 80 B.C. Latin became the official language, replacing the native Oscan, the tongue of the Samnites.  

Villa of Diomedes. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Pompeii was affluent enough by the first century A.D. that it sported architecture of high quality and served as a resort town along with the neighboring town of Herculaneum. The wealthy lived at large villas with views of the Bay of Naples such as the 40,000 square foot Villa of Diomedes. One of the main sites included a temple to the goddess Venus, which seems to have been the chief deity for the city. The city also boasted five public bath complexes, the oldest and most elaborate of which were the Stabian baths. At the beginning of the first century A.D., the baths were equipped with running water from an aqueduct rather than the use of a well. The baths included hot rooms with heated floors and walls, cold rooms, cold baths, and hot baths. The complex was on the cutting edge of bathing technology — something very important to the Romans.  

Stabian Baths. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Another building of importance to the Romans was the theater. Pompeii had two, a larger theater for Greco-Roman plays and a smaller one for poetry and music. The city also had a number of public and private gardens. Archaeologists have been surprised at the amount of space devoted to gardens and its accompanying small religious shrines.  Aside from the arts, Pompeii had extensive brothels decorated in what would generally be considered today's lewd images.

Pompeii's large southern theater. Source: (Photo by Andrea Jemolo / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Pompeii’s ten to twenty thousand people were fed during the first century A.D. by a number of commercial bakeries. They also were active in political life, often writing graffiti with messages to support a political candidate or to advertise a gladiatorial game or other services. Interestingly, graffiti in Pompeii was not in the same sense as contemporary graffiti — undesirable — but was a form of effective communication. And where there is life there is death with the Romans being interred at the nearby Porta Nola Necropolis. 

Graffiti on wall in Pompeii. Source: (Photo by: Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Pompeii’s region of Campania is an area of seismic intensity. Pompeii had seen a major earthquake in 62 A.D. followed by smaller ones, but the city had managed to substantially recover from it. There was no sign of distress by the population except that they built sturdier buildings as proof against earthquakes. In fact, the Stabian baths were enlarged and enhanced.   

Frieze of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Source: (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Then in 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted. The actual date of the eruption is debated. The traditional date is August 24 to 25 but recent hypotheses contend it may have been in October of November. Regardless, the only written eyewitness account to the disaster was by Pliny the Younger, who wrote of it about thirty years after the fact.

At about 1:00 pm, a great cloud began to loom over the land. Pliny, who was with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was in command of a Roman fleet at nearby Misenum, went with him to look at the phenomenon. He wrote, “In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.” It immediately became apparent that a disaster was at hand, and Pliny the Elder started up rescue operations, launching ships to evacuate the people of Pompeii.

Mural of a couple in Pompeii. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Pliny the Younger described the scene as ships neared the shore, “Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain…. Meanwhile, on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.”

The last Day of Pompeii. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

And dark it was too as the volcanic cloud swept over them. Pliny recorded, “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.”

Victims of the eruption. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Vesuvius erupted over a period of 18 hours. Pyroclastic flows ran at 70 miles an hour with temperatures of up to 700 degrees. Pumice rained from the sky. By the time it was done, ash and debris Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny the Elder would die from the Vesuvius’s eruption along with several thousand of the Pompeiians. The cause of death was from heat surge or suffocation, buried in the hot ash. Pliny the Elder himself most likely died of an asthmatic attack or heart attack. As for the city itself, it lost access to the Sarno River and shifted further inland.

Pompeii's forum. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Efforts to restore the city came to nothing and Pompeii was soon largely forgotten. Then in 1592 and 1738, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered, respectively. The first scientific excavations were conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries. The benefit of Pompeii to historians is that it is a city buried in time (it certainly wasn’t frozen). People and animals were buried in situ and did not have time to remove their belongings. In fact, it was during the 19th century that archaeologists realized that voids in the ash layers they were finding were where bodies had fallen. They were able to reconstruct these forms by injecting the gaps with plaster. Excavation continues to this day as new areas of the city are opened up and lower strata are explored.

All of this tells us much about Roman daily life from the period which is not available from other sources. As items and architecture which were perfectly preserved being buried in ash. As artifacts become exposed to the elements the speed of decay quickly increases. The lost city of Pompeii is, therefore, a UNESCO World Heritage site and covers over 525,000 square yards. This window to the past is also one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions with well over 2 million visits per year.  

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