Grade school taught us about the glorious beginnings and tragic end of Pompeii. But being there in person is a whole different experience. In this blog I attempt to share some stories of the past and our account on how it feels like to be there.
We took a two and a half hour guided tour of the ancient city. Since it happened to be first Sunday of the month, it was a free entrance day. The place was packed with locals, tourists and school trips, but the guide was great at navigating, keeping us to the schedule, sharing stories and answering questions the whole time. I strongly recommend visiting Pompeii with a guide.
Starting with a little background – back in the 6th century BC Pompeii was settled as a village of the Oscan people. But, it came under Roman dominance in the 4th century BC. Later in 80 BC it became a Roman colony after an unsuccessful rebellion. It all ended on Oct 24th, 79 AD with the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius. After being buried and preserved under meters of volcanic ash for 1,500 years, it’s now one of the most popular attraction in Italy with 2.5 million visitors year.
While the town and its surroundings are in Pompeii, an astounding collection of findings from Pompeii and nearby towns buried that night are on display in National Archaeological Museum of Naples. It would be a wonderful idea to visit Napoli and the museum after Pompeii.
The tour of Pompeii starts across from the ancient trading port, right outside this wealthy Roman city. Its a great way to trace the footsteps of the ancient visitors of Pompeii.
At a glance, we can tell there water body in the area. But we know this was a river port by evidence presented in the remains – the classic holes and hooks in the retaining walls were used to anchor boats while the crew and travelers went off shore. The river is now miles away but the port walls still stand.
Many shops lined the busy streets of Pompeii. The grooves left from wooden doors indicate the entrance to a store. These groves are found in the port area, forum and throughout the city.
The Public Baths
The port provided entertainment and comfort for the traders, including the grand Roman baths on hot thermal springs. In addition, many public baths are found all over the city so all residents, visitors and even slaves could stay clean.
The view from this bath out to the river must have been amazing. Imagine lying in the beautiful warm bath, on a cold day, sipping a drink and looking out to the river below.
The rooms in the baths were heated, as we can tell by the gap under the floor and behind the walls. The air from the furnace circulated all around the rooms and pools keeping them warm. As one went inside, the baths were progressively hotter. This was an amazing feat in times when even the wealthy in other kingdoms didn’t have water for baths.
Forum and Vesuvius
Like all Roman cities, Pompeii has a large Forum, the city’s center for government, religion, trade and commerce. This was the hub of the city. People gathered here to discuss politics, worship, work, trade, shop, socialize, argue or just hang out… and do the modern day equivalents of getting coffee, taking selfies & pictures etc. We feel its busy now, but it must have been busier then.
Now we see the ruins with the overarching Mount Vesuvius. We can only imagine the grand Forum that provided a equally majestic foreground.
Igor Mitoraj’s sculptures were scheduled to be on display in Pompeii until Jan 2017. However, we got lucky to see them even when we arrived in April. Mitoraj’s art with their mutilation and decay of perfect form resonate with Pompeii, which was struck and destroyed by sudden natural calamity and now lies in decay. It was Mitoraj’s dream to have an exhibition in Pompeii, and his finally dream came true two hears after his death.
One of the gifts from Romans was ‘water’ and ‘personal hygiene’ which we now take for granted. Romans provided water to all their citizens in their entire empire, which was unheard of in other countries back then. Pompeii is no exception. They built aqua ducts underground to bring water to the masses. In Pompeii the aqua ducts were filled by rain water from the streets, squares in every house and rivers. Most houses did not have running water but people accessed water from the public fountains, little well holes in the house and the thermal public baths. Everyone took hot water baths, even slaves. So, Romans had a longer life expectancy (35 years) than times before and after them.
In the classic Roman style, Pompeii has straight roads, perpendicular to each other and made with the black igneous volcanic rock.
All the houses had a square central area with an open top and is surrounded by rooms, just like the aangans in our ancestral homes in Rajasthan, India. Rain collected in these squares and fed the underground aqua ducts. The little circular hole was then used to get water from the aqua duct, sort of like a well. Similar to Rajasthan homes, the second floor was open in the middle too and rain gutters from the second floor fed water into this square too. It would have been so much fun for kids to come out and play in the rain water gushing from the rain gutters, like we remember doing as children.
Living in Pompeii
At the time of the eruption about 20,000 people lived in this summer tourist destination. Life must have been good for the Roman citizens as we can tell by the infrastructure, houses, bakeries and restaurants.
The House of Faun, is one of the largest and most ornate house in town. The center square now displays the Faun (Half Man Half goat) statue. It’s surrounded by many rooms for guests and entertaining. To the right is a section for slaves, the kitchen and operations of the residence. Further up are family residences, gardens and the famous tile art depicting a battle scene with Alexander the Great.
The Alexander Mosaic is a masterpiece from 100BC. It depicts a fight scene in the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. It was made with 1.5Million tiny pieces of colored marble, each stone laid out show the perfect lighting and shadow effect, facial expressions on the men and horses. The details are truly remarkable. It must have been commissioned by a very wealthy owner and decorate the entrance of his house to showcase his wealth and power.
Like other works of art, the original is preserved in Naples museum. This reproduction was a herculean effort in itself that took 22 months and 2M tiny tiles and many artists. Its showcased in the House of Faun.
Most houses had beautiful mosaics at the entrance. The mosaic told a lot about the owner of the house – their philosophy, status, wealth etc.
A Pompeii house with a view. The entrance is decorate with mosaic of an lion like voracious animal.
Eating in Pompeii
The people of Pompeii seemed to eat out and buy their breads from bakeries like this one. There were 14 such bakeries in Pompeii. Workers started baking very early in the morning. On the fateful night of Oct 24th 79BC, this bakery was running full speed. Bread was in the oven and later found by archeologists.
Most people ate bread, cheese, eggs and olives. Some could also afford fish, meat and cake.
Extra Curricular Activities
Pompeii had many temples dedicated to the various Roman and Greek gods. Some of them are in the forum area and others spread around town.
Pompeii had two theaters for live performances and an amphitheater for gladiator fights.
At times the gladiator performance got very violent. One time a brutal fight broke out between fans of Pompeii and Nocera, killing many spectators. So the senate banned gladiator fights for a decade. But, after just three years, gladiator fights were restored by Roman emperor Nero, on the request of Poppea (from Pompeii). This shows how important this form of entertainment was for Romans. Imagine banning football in Texas if fans get into an argument!
Both the theaters were made in the Greek style using the natural slopes and magestic mountain views. The seating was organized in Roman systems of classes and section. The small theater could house 1,000 spectators and had a covered roof where as the larger theater could hold 5,000 spectators.
Although Pompeii looks like a concrete jungle (rather marble and stone), the surroundings of Pompeii are stunning with the river, mountains, flowers and more. Maybe that’s why this was a tourist destination for the Romans and Italians. I wonder if hiking was as popular back then as it is today in California.
At the end of Life
Death comes to all. Some people die leaving memorable legacies and others are forgotten. Towns and communities thrive and generally die a slow death. Civilization arise, reach their pinnacle, then decline and disappear slowly. What’s unique about Pompeii is it was buried alive at its pinnacle. Although much was stolen by local treasure hunters, enough was left behind to reconstruct the lifestyle at its prime and in death.
Since Pompeii was buried for 1500 years, the bodies decomposed in place, leaving precise cavities where the people would have been that night. Scientist injected these hollow cavities with liquid plaster, which cooled and hardened to take the exact shape of the space. Today, we have 100 casts of people and animals from Pompeii that tell a lot about that tragic night and the people. Some of images are quite disturbing.
NOTE: The stories shared in this post are as heard from our guides, other curious people, read in pamphlets and mostly our observations in Pompeii. This is by no means meant to be comprehensive guide or a replacement of historical research.