On 24 August in 79 A.D. the eruption of Mount Vesuvius condemned the Roman city of Pompeii to 1,700 years under ash and debris. Today it is a unique gateway to life in ancient times.
Nobody could have predicted what happened. On a summer morning, a pillar of ash rocketed into the sky, branching out over Pompeii, plunging it into darkness. Volcanic rocks soon hit the rooftops like meteors. Houses started to shake. The ground trembled. People ran for their lives.
“You could hear women moaning, children howling, and men shouting,” Pliny the Younger, an author and witness, later wrote in his letters. “Some were lamenting their own misfortune, others that of their families. A few in their fear of death were praying for death. Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.”
If the darkness wasn’t final, it signalled the end of ancient Pompeii and its 20,000 inhabitants. At midnight, ground-hugging avalanches of hot ash, pumice and rock fragment flowed down towards the city walls at 100 kilometres an hour. Buildings were bashed and bodies buried (skeletons later found expressed both panic and uncertainty). By the morning, the city was covered beyond recognition.
The warning signs had been many. In 62 A.D. a large earthquake destroyed several buildings. Repairs began immediately, but further seismic activity caused more damage. Even then, people in the Campania region viewed this as normal. Only years before the eruption, Seneca, a philosopher, advised emperor Nero that the rumblings were linked to earthquakes elsewhere in the world, as well as stormy weather.
There had also been a major eruption around 1800 B.C. that wept out nearby settlements. But of this the Romans knew nothing.
Just before that fateful day, Pompeii was a dynamic commercial centre and flourishing holiday destination. The city, located south east of Napoli, was founded by Oscans in the 6th century; then ruled by Samnites, Greeks and Etruscans before becoming a Roman colony in 80 B.C. following the Social War.
The introduction of the Romans sparked an architectural upgrade, shaped by the cultural blend of Romans and Greek colonies. Fine stone buildings emerged (including an amphitheatre and the forum baths) before a period of modernisation followed; elevated sidewalks along the paved streets were installed, as were stepping stones for crossing the roads and a sophisticated water management system that channelled the nearby Samo River to houses, baths and public fountains.
The city’s progression extended not only to architecture. The Bay of Naples was a playground for the rich and nearby holiday villas brought constant investment. The Puteoli port was also a key trading centre in the Mediterranean. Inside Pompeii, people poured their savings into their houses, resulting in magnificent architecture; elegant courtyard gardens graced with frescoes, plants and flowers. There were also shops, storage houses, inns and even brothels.
Outside, the streets were shaped somewhat irregularly due to the city’s 30-metre plateau – made of hardened lava from pre-historic times. They were paved with large, flat stepping stones, flanked by public fountains and stalls.
On the walls graffiti slogans can still be seen, demonstrating the inhabitants’ literacy. Many are political, corresponding to an election in March 79 A.D., and were often backed by working groups. One read: “The fruit dealers together with Helvius Vestalis unanimously urge the election of Marcus.” Other messages involved lovers and enemies (one read: “Samius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!”) while some were of children learning to write.
But the slogans were not to see the light of day for long. Five months after the election, Vesuvius, to the shock of Pompeiians, erupted, spewing ash some 35 kilometres into the sky. On the day, the wind blew from the north-west, guiding the ash towards the city, which was located 10 kilometres south. Whereas Pompeii was completely buried, northern cities recovered quickly.
The ash itself was not directly life threatening. Some people stayed in the city, trying to weather the storm. But when waves of magma washed over the walls, none stood a chance. Indeed, a study in 2010 found that people died instantly from the heat of magma and volcanic gas; not ash suffocation as believed earlier.
The city remained buried until its discovery in 1748 by a survey engineer. Excavations were soon ordered by King of Naples Charles III of Bourbon in order to find art for the Royal collection; the centrepiece of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This had a damaging effect, with buildings crushed to remove paintings and frescos.
A more careful approach came with the French control of Naples from 1806 to 1815, before real scientific excavation was ordered by Giuseppe Fiorelli, a Naples-born archaeologist, in 1863. This continued until the early 20th century when more damaging methods were deployed. Today, efforts are concentrated on preserving the two-thirds that is uncovered. The last third, it has been decided, will be left for future generations.
During centuries of excavation, the 66-acre site has produced intriguing findings. Initially, where the bodies had rot, vacuums were left shaped in the postures of the dead. Archaeologists filled them with hollow plaster, creating casts revealing in detail how Pompeii’s citizens suffered in their final moments. Somewhere a mother shelters a small daughter, while a drunk clutches a leather wine pouch. Elsewhere a man is trying to protect a heap of coins.
This is the essence of Pompeii; that buildings, originally erected to last a few decades, have been fully preserved from the hazards of time. The city; everything from its mighty architecture down to the tiny details of its everyday life, stands as it did more than 19 centuries ago. The stands still line up along the roads. The stones paving the roads are still marked with the groove of chariot wheels. Nowhere else will you find a window to a specific moment of Roman town life, buried in time.
Photos: Arthur R., Didon [both via Shutterstock.com], Carlo Mirante