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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
Pompeii official visitor website here
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!
The post The last day of Pompeii, 24th August 79 AD was first published on DreamDiscoverItalia