The last day of Pompeii, 24th August 79 AD

At around 1pm on the 24th August 79 AD Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy blew her top. For hours she spewed a cloud of deadly volcanic gas, molten lava and fine ash up into the stratosphere. Little did the people watching realise that disaster was about to strike and over a thousand of them would die, suffocated by ash or seared by superheated pyroclastic gas. And the volcano would destroy a massive swathe of the countryside around it within the next 2 days. It would become one of the most devastating volcanic eruptions ever seen in Europe. This was the last day of the city of Pompeii.

Ruins of the city of Pompeii with the Vesuvius volcano on the horizon

Ruins of the city of Pompeii with the Vesuvius volcano on the horizon

Pompeii, an ancient Roman city in the south of Italy, had been founded in the 7th or 6th century BC and ruled by the Romans since the 4th century BC. It was home to around 15,000 people when Vesuvius erupted 6 miles (10km) away and life was good.

Entering the city of Pompeii via a long stone ramp up to a stone gate just as the ancient Romans would have done in 79 AD

Entering the city of Pompeii via a long stone ramp up to a stone gate just as the ancient Romans would have done in 79 AD

Pretty much everything you needed was there. Villas were finely decorated with colourful frescos, sculptures and private gardens. Pompeii also had its own theatre, public baths, bakeries, butchers, brothels, a gym, markets, numerous temples and even a sophisticated water system supplying water to public fountains, houses and a swimming pools.

Brightly coloured frescoes decorated houses at Pompeii, near Naples

Brightly coloured frescoes decorated houses at Pompeii, near Naples

Trade centred on the commercial port, with galleons importing fermented fish sauce from Greece or Spain and exporting olive oil, although today Pompeii is around 2 kilometers from the coast. There was even graffiti on the walls taking the mickey out of neighbours or local politicians too. And Pompeii had cats’ eyes in the streets to help citizens to get home in the dark! It sounds just like a modern city doesn’t it?

Pompeii's theatre in a classic semi-circular design with banked stone seating

Pompeii’s theatre in a classic semi-circular design with banked stone seating

But all that was nearly 2000 years ago, before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius, so how do we know so much about life in Pompeii?

Ancient Roman columns once again rise high at Pompeii after excavations to reveal the extent of the ancient city

Ancient Roman columns once again rise high at Pompeii after excavations to reveal the extent of the ancient city

Pliny the Younger described the eruption in his letter to his uncle Pliny the Elder, so we can pinpoint the time and date but we also have more concrete records. Unfortunately for Pompeii, the volcanic Vesuvius was about to dump 4 – 6m (13 – 20ft) of ash and pumice on top of the city, burying it for nearly 1500 years. All trace of the city was obliterated or abandoned and all memory of its name and location was lost. But Pompeii’s loss was our gain.

The grand entrance to ancient Pompeii's market is decorated with a finely carved marble door frame

The grand entrance to ancient Pompeii’s market is decorated with a finely carved marble door frame

The fine volcanic dust that entombed the city in just 48 hours also created a hidden time capsule that kept its secret for 1500 years. And it wasn’t until 1599 that workmen digging an underground water channel revealed the first traces of Pompeii again. Ancient walls covered in inscriptions and paintings were uncovered but the link wasn’t made with the old Roman city and the remains were re-buried. Pompeii would remain hidden for another 150 years until a Spanish engineer started excavating, looking for the city in 1748. What he and is successors found would stun the world.

Pompeii streets often included stepping stones so pedestrians could cross easily avoiding animal muck, mud and puddles. The gaps in the stones were perfectly spaced to allow cart wheels through. Clever eh?

Pompeii streets often included stepping stones so pedestrians could cross easily avoiding animal muck, mud and puddles. The gaps in the stones were perfectly spaced to allow cart wheels through. Clever eh?

Districts and buildings buried under the ash and pumice were intact, including internal walls, wooden furniture and even the delicate frescos on the plastered walls. Bread was excavated, almost charcoal, but retaining details including the patterns cut into the crust before baking. Garden statues were also found in situ and bright, ornate frescos were uncovered adorning the walls of some of the high status villas.

Charred bread excavated from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii still shows the maker's mark

Charred bread excavated from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii still shows the maker’s mark

The level of preservation was unprecedented, helped by the lack of air or moisture under the ash blanket that enveloped the city. And it offered an unrivaled view of day to day life in a Roman city. It was almost like stepping back in time.

A simple garden pond survives intact at ancient Pompeii together with its small copper statue

A simple garden pond survives intact at ancient Pompeii together with its small copper statue

An entire city preserved in ash would be impressive but there was more to come.

As they dug archeologists kept finding voids in the ash. They noticed bones too. But it wasn’t until Italian archeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli took over that he realised that the spaces had been left by Vesuvius’s victims as their bodies decomposed in their ash tombs. He injected the spaces with plaster and revealed the forms of the people caught up in the volcano’s destruction.

A Pompeii plaster cast - an ancient Pompeian citizen shields his face from the volcanic ash and gas

A Pompeii plaster cast – an ancient Pompeian citizen shields his face from the volcanic ash and gas

Hundreds of victims were found crouched, contorted or face down, immobilised in their final resting places. The plaster even picked up details of their clothes and expressions in some cases and many were found clutching or beside their treasures, clutched to them as they tried to make their escape. Today some of the plaster casts are on display around the site and in an exhibition near the amphitheatre running till November 2015, although personally I find it hard to look at them, faces contorted in pain, in their glass coffins or stacked up on shelves in the granary store.

One of ancient Pompeii's plaster cast figures, nicknamed "The Thinker"

One of ancient Pompeii’s plaster cast figures, nicknamed “The Thinker”

If you think the bodies are eye-opening though, wait till you see the brothel or spot one of the hundreds of tributes to Roman god Priapus, the god of sex and fertility. The brothel is decorated with small paintings of sexual activity almost like a menu from which customers might choose or possibly to promote arousal!

An painting of an altar, possibly Priapus the god of sex and fertility, depicting a large phallus for good luck

An painting of an altar, possibly Priapus the god of sex and fertility, depicting a large phallus for good luck

And Priapus’s large penis can be found all over the city carved onto walls, incised into pavements and painted in frescos for good luck. The Romans were not prudish about their bodies or sex so get ready for the questions from your kids if you visit as a family!

A lucky charm carved into a paving stone at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii

A lucky charm carved into a paving stone at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii

On a slightly more mundane level, Pompeii reveals how similar life back then was to our lives today. One house even has a “Beware of the dog” mosaic at its front door.

"Cave Canem" - Beware of the dog mosaic at the entrance to a domestic house in ancient Pompeii

“Cave Canem” – Beware of the dog mosaic at the entrance to a domestic house in ancient Pompeii

And if you take a look at the stone roads you’ll notice the “cats eyes” I mentioned earlier as little white stones are set into the gaps between the larger paving stones. At night the little white pebbles would catch the moonlight well enough to mark out the way for Pompeians returning home! It would take us another 1900 years to invent the modern cats eyes just reinforcing just how ingenious and ahead of their time the Romans were really!

Little white stones set into the street paving catch the moonlight to help citizens get home in the dark

Little white stones set into the street paving catch the moonlight to help citizens get home in the dark

It’s a truly fascinating portal back to Roman times. UNESCO recognised the site with World Heritage Site status in 1997 and today Pompeii is one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions, welcoming over 2.5 million visitors each year. If you ever wondered what life was like back in ancient Roman times then a trip to Pompeii is a must but make sure to take a bottle of water as the city is hot under the Calabrian sunshine and the old water fountains no longer work, sadly! Leave me a comment with your thoughts on what it might have been like living in Pompeii or with memories of visiting the site more recently! And in the meantime, lets hope that Vesuvius sleeps for many centuries to come without endangering the 25,000 Pompeians who now live in the new city nearby.

Ancient Pompeii had public baths for use by everyone - the changing rooms are beautifully decorated with paintings and carvings, possible to help you remember where you left your toga!

Ancient Pompeii had public baths for use by everyone – the changing rooms are beautifully decorated with paintings and carvings, possible to help you remember where you left your toga!

Useful information

Pompeii official visitor website here

Opening hours

From 1 April to 31 October: 8.30/9.00 – 19.30 (last entrance 18.00)
From 1 November to 31 March: 8.30 – 17.00 (last entrance 15.30)
Boscoreale from 1 November to 31 March: 8.30 – 18.30 (last entrance 17.00)
The sites are closed on:  25 December, 1 January, 1 May

By the way : the Pompeii site is open for free on the first Sunday of every month as part of the Domenica al Museo scheme operated by the Italian government so don’t forget to check the dates and book early!

An ancient portico at the Roman city of Pompeii

An ancient columned portico at the Roman city of Pompeii

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5 Responses to The last day of Pompeii, 24th August 79 AD

  1. Anna says:

    Great post! Pompeii is very high on my list of places I still need to visit in Italy!

  2. Very nice! I’m going to search for posts by you on Ferrara. I’ll be there in 2 weeks 🙂

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