Friday, April 19, 2013

“P” is for Pompeii

3601126_com_vesuvius2_zoomThe Roman city of Pompeii, located at the foot of the Volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, near the coast of the Bay of Naples, was destroyed, along with the cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae, by an unexpected, violent eruption of the volcano in the year 79 AD. The cities were buried by ashes and pumice stone caused by the eruption and then covered by layer upon layer of soil until it was rediscovered in 1748 during excavations that have continued until the present day. The excavations present reliable insight into the daily life of Pompeii and Rome in 79 AD.

Pompeii in its Heyday

Pompeii was founded during the 7th century BC by a central Italian people, the Oscans, but became a Roman colony in 80 BC when it was overcome by Sulla’s army. Because of its location, the city held an important position in the Roman Empire, both as a port city as well as a resort town. The prosperity of the city was also due to the high fertility of the soil, which made it ideal for agricultural pursuits.

Excavations have unearthed a trading company, jars full of wine, “Laundromats”, and many other professional buildings. Graffiti provides us with street dialects based on Latin. Pompeii had undergone extensive restructuration after being annexed to Rome, including the addition of a gymnasium, complete with centralized swimming pool; an amphitheater and an aqueduct that provided water for 25 street fountains, at least 4 public baths and a number of private homes.

It is presumed that there were approximately 20,000 citizens at the time of the eruption, gymnasium and amphitheater were discovered, along with two theaters, a large food market, a mill, a Thermopolium, and a number of small restaurants. A rather large hotel (1000 sq. meters) was found on the outskirts of the city.

It appears, from artifacts found during the excavations that on the day of August 24, 79 AD the people of Pompeii were going about their daily business much the same as usual. Half-eaten meals have been found in the homes, the local bakery had 81 loaves of bread still in the oven, recipe books were found open in kitchens and restaurants, people were found in bedrooms… Political graffiti found on walls show that the people were interested in local politics; local gossip was also to be found scribbled on the city walls and even in bathrooms, much like today.

Pliny the Younger, an eye-witness to the destruction of Pompeii, wrote a series of letters after the incident, indicating that the inhabitants of Pompeii knew that something was wrong, although at the time most had no idea of how dangerous the situation was. Pliny’s mother had seen a giant mushroom-shaped cloud over the mountain and had said that she was very worried about eruption. The citizens of Pompeii had no experience with volcanic eruptions, and therefore had no idea that they should get out of the city quickly. When they finally realized the seriousness of the situation, it was already too late to escape.

A group of us went to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Discovery Museum in Manhattan on August 22, 2011. Although flash photography was not allowed, we were able to take videos, which do not require flash. Here are some of the clips I was able to take from the video I took. 







  1. We visited Pompeii in 1990 and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Italy. They had such an advanced civilization. How unfortunate there was no time to save themselves.

    1. They probably could have, had they actually known what was really going on. Some people were saved, including Pliny the younger. His uncle, Pliny the older, knew, but thought he had more time. It really is sad, though, isn't it. However, because of this tragedy, we know much about how life was there in that period.


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