The Monastery of Monte Casino upper right
We arrived in the national park of Pompeii in late morning, and it was jammed with tour buses and tourists. The city itself is on a hill, so there were quite a few steps to climb from the parking lot and cafe level. Mount Vesuvius looms in the not all that far distance, its now uneven summit seemingly having two separate peaks. That’s after it blew its top off in 79 AD.
The Romans had no clue that it was a volcano, for it had not erupted within the recorded history available to them.
Next, walking through the ruins and visiting Vesuvius itself.
Pompeii wine seller's shop
Back to Pompeii and Vesuvius. From the parking area/refreshment establishments level we walked with our local guide and the tour bus guides, listening to his excellent explanations of what was seen. We passed the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Bay of Naples on which Pompeii is built, its geologic layers exposed, most having issued forth from Vesuvius over the eons. Those who settled on it had no idea of the connection to a volcano, for there was no recorded history of it being anything other than a lovely mountain with incredibly fertile soil on it and surrounding it for miles. A fresco rescued from one of the buried houses and preserved in a museum depicts it before the fatal eruption–a magnificent Matterhorn-type single peak covered in greenery.
Ascending the stairs having several flights and landings brought us to the top and gave a panoramic view of the Bay of Naples and surrounding Campania’s landscape. Naples and Campania had a long tradition of Greek colonial settlement before Rome gained its prominence. The area was rich in agriculture, particularly grapes and olive trees, staples of Mediterranean trade in olive oil and wine. The ports were excellent places to do business, and cities on the bay prospered. Pompeii is believed to have a population of about 20,000 in AD 79.
A large earthquake in AD 62 significantly damaged Pompeii, and reconstruction was still going on in 79. No connection was made between the quake and the subsequent eruption even as the city sat atop the evidence. Vesuvius had been asleep for millenia. Long sleep seems to be its wont, as its next awakening was 1944–and that was nothing much compared to 79. Some 3 million inhabitants of Naples and surrounding Campania today are at risk when it wakes again. Scary.
Pompeii cobblestone street; wagon wheel ruts lower right
Walking through the streets of Pompeii one must really look carefully before stepping, as the large cobblestones don’t have level surfaces nor are the bases they sit in level. The curbs on either side are higher than a contemporary curb, and the streets act as drainiage channels as well. At intervals there are stepping stones across the streets, spaced so that a cart or chariot’s wheels can pass between them without being stuck. Wheel ruts are deep in the stones in places. The streets are wide enough for vehicles to pass through one at a time with room on each side for loads, but that’s all. There are sidewalks of sorts in most places–or at least that’s what has survived.
Next, finding Pompeii after the disaster.
Second left, Pompeii 2-story brothel with "menu" posted at the door--in Latin
Pompeii and Herculaneum lay buried and essentially lost for centuries until in 1738 workmen digging foundations for King Charles of Bourbon’s summer palace encountered more than the scattered fragments of antiquity that had popped up randomly in the interim. The king was intrigued, and the search was on. Investigating through underground passages, his searchers discovered the theater of Herculaneum. The treasures found grew with each cartload. By 1755 the significant differences in contemporary ground levels and discovery levels in the area was perplexing, and the question remained what was that place known in local folklore as “the city” on the small escarpment? Outlying remains nearby had been unearthed, and finally Pompeii was revealed as that place when an inscription was found.
Pompeii then became the place to visit among everybody who was anybody with an interest in the classical world. The everybody part seems to be pretty much the same these days given the numerous tour buses parked below and tour guides shepherding their flocks throughout its streets and buildings. Unfortunately the weather was in the mid 80s and sunny, and hot in the sun even if wearing a hat on the day we were there. The guides suggested taking bottled water on the walking tour, and that was sound advice.
Remains of the temple of Apollo
Lots of walking up a slight grade to the different streets, down stairs, back up the stairs, on the flat, up another low hill, down to the amphitheater with its perfect acoustics. Through more narrow streets between what had been businesses–a laundry, a provisioner’s shop, a wine dealer’s storage area, down to some taverns/cafes scattered among them, with a brothel or four in the mix. One brothel had its “menu” carved on the wall by the front door, complete with prices. Graffiti is everywhere in town, now reduced to what was carved in the walls by passers by. But it was painted on decorated painted walls in the days em>before. Bragging gladiators, prostitutes and madams advertising, merchants advertising, kids being snarky, street addresses, political campaigning, ramblings of drunks, pretty much anything and everything.
Seemed as if the social level of such establishments’ patrons might dictate which neighborhoods they bordered, though by no means did the uppercrust folk stick to their own territory. The local tour guide told of a bizarre–to us–arrangement between the jug (amphora) maker, the taverns, and the laundry. When impelled by the call of nature, the men imbibing wine in the taverns would contribute to an amphora conveniently placed outside the door. Next morning slaves would take the jugs to the laundry and take empty ones back to the taverns. The laundry used two methods to clean clothes and linens–boiling them in water or soaking them in urine and then washing them. Do not try this at home.
The city was much more than a resort retreat for some wealthy from elsewhere; it was a commerce center that made citizens wealthy and encouraged the arts in private and public buildings and temples. Regrettably, the early excavations exposed priceless paintings, frescoes, and mosaics to the elements, and those that were not removed to sheltered environs soon began deteriorating, cracking, fading, slowly falling apart. Modern excavations into untouched areas awed archaeologists with bright colors, home furnishings, daily living items found just as they were on that terrible day. These have been carefully removed and preserved in private collections and museums.
Artifact storage building; front--plaster cast of a victim
All of the city within the walls has been identified and marked; a goodly portion excavated, mapped, and named; three areas are yet to be excavated. A large storage building at one side of the forum holds items retrieved and cataloged but yet to be examined closely. They are contained in multi-tiered shelves in row upon row, closed in on three sides by walls and open on the fourth but sheltered by a large overhang and closed in by locked chainlink fencing. They surely represent thousands of PhD theses in archaeology and history yet to be written. Few of the plaster casts of bodies of the victims remain on site, as they are too fragile and are soon moved to safer environs for examination. Much of the statuary remains in the public places such as the forum, most of it identified.
It was exhausting and kind of mysterious in that the place seems quietly alive if you pay attention. Definitely an experience not to be missed, jet lag day 2 or not. And behind the city walls a few miles distant looms Vesuvius, now seemingly with two peaks and a depression between them, and we know roughly where the top went. We likely are standing on some of it.
So it was off to lunch at a restaurant part way up the road on the side of the mountain. Pizza for everyone and wine. Pizza was not invented in Chicago–it was invented in Italy, and the folks in Naples will match theirs against anybody’s anywhere.
View from the volcanic escarpment on which Pompeii is built; below is the pathway from the parking lot.
Reference: Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, Pompeii, the Living City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. p. 3.