On a fateful August morning in 79 AD Pompeii (LINK), a Roman town-city near modern Naples, was totally destroyed and buried under a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius (LINK) killing around 3,000 people as the rest of the population had already fled before the eruption. A flood of ash and protoplasmic heated air rained down on the town for approximately 6 hours completely burying the town and its inhabitants in up to twelve layers of ash and debris up to 82 feet (25 meters) deep.
Forgotten, the town was lost for around 1,500 years until it was rediscovered in 1599 with the digging of a channel. Nothing was done to the ruins for almost 150 years when an investigation in 1748 led to additional discoveries in this forgotten town.
Founded in the 7th or 6th century BC, Pompeii came under Roman control in the 4th century BC. Located about 5.0 mi (8 km) away from Mount Vesuvius the town covered a total of 170 acres (64 to 67 hectares) and was home to approximately 11,000 to 11,500 people. A major city in the region of Campania (LINK) it had a complex water system, an amphitheater, gymnasium, and a port. This UNESCO World Heritage Site today receives 250 million visitors a year and has been a tourist attraction for over 250 years.
Although the town is now inland from the sea it was once a thriving port serving Greek and Phoenician sailors. The rural areas of Pompeii had very fertile agricultural land speculated to be dedicated to grain and wheat that could produce larger quantities of goods than the city needed.
Although ever since the ancient Greeks settled in the area in the 8th century BC, the region around Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples has attracted wealthy vacationers who wanted to soak up the sun and the scenery, just as they still do along the Amalfi (LINK) coast just to the south.
By the turn of the first century AD the town of Pompeii was a flourishing resort for Rome’s richest citizens. Elegant homes and villas lined the streets. Tourists, townspeople and slaves bustled in and out of small factories, artisans’ shops, taverns, cafes, brothels and bathhouses. People gathered in the 20,000-seat arena and lounged in the open-air squares and marketplaces. On the eve of that fateful eruption in 79 AD, scholars estimate that there were about 20,000 people living in Pompeii and the surrounding region.
During the excavation voids had been discovered in the layers of ash. Wondering what these voids where formed by, plaster was poured into voids and it was discovered that these once held human bodies. These plaster casts allowed archaeologists to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died. It is chilling to see these casts today, the horror the citizens must have faced in the heat and ash fall from Vesuvius can be seen in the contorted shapes of the bodies.
Arrive by car, train, bus, boat or even make it a day trip from Rome.
Pompeii is a huge place, if you want to discover it with the audio guide it can easily take one full day. The “Campania ArteCard” (LINK) offers free admission to numerous sites in the region if you are planning to be in Campania for several days. The site is open most days (check for current ticket costs, operating times and days of operation).
This is a walking site so be prepared with a good set of shoes for walking on cobblestones and uneven ground. Make sure to take plenty of water, rest when needed and watch your step as the old roads are uneven cobbles. Also take sunscreen and hats in the summer time. There is a lot to look at and it could take all day or multiple days to see everything.
On buying your ticket you should receive a map of the site and a booklet listing the main attractions. A map of the site is essential. Even with a map visiting Pompeii is a bit like a trip to a maze, many of the roads, apparently open according on the map, turn out to be blocked off for excavations, repairs, or because a collapsed building.
NOTEWORTHY BUILDINGS TO SEE:
The Amphitheatre – Completed in 80BC it measures 442 x 341 feet (135 x 104 meters). This is the earliest surviving amphitheatre in Italy and one of the best preserved. Used for gladiator battles, other sports and spectacles involving wild animals it could hold about 20,000 people.
The Great Palaestra (Gymnasium) – This occupies an area opposite the Amphitheatre. The central area was used for sporting activities and there was a pool in the middle.
Houses -The house of the Vettii is believed to have been the home of two brothers who were freed slaves and became very affluent. It contains many frescoes. The house of the Faun is named after a statue of a dancing faun found on the site. It is considered to be an excellent example of the fusion of Italian and Greek architectural styles, and it occupies an entire block. Many other smaller and larger homes can be visited along the many streets.
Forum – Surrounded by many of the important government, religious and business buildings this was the center of public life.
Temple of Apollo -On the western side of the Forum this is the oldest remains discovered with some dating back to 575BC.
Theatre – A 5,000 seat Theatre built into a hillside for an acoustic advantage.
Lupanar – An ancient brothel with pornographic frescoes over the entrance to each room, presumably indicating the services on offer. Even allowing for the smaller size of ancient Romans the beds seem rather small.
The Basilica – To the west of the Forum was the most important public building of the city where both justice was administered and trade was carried on.
Forum Granary – The public market building is now used to house artifacts like storage jars and plaster casts of people who did not escape the eruption.
Baths – There are several baths to be inspected. The Forum Baths are just north of the forum which are well preserved and roofed. The Central Baths occupy a much larger area but are less preserved. Close to these are The Stabian Baths which have some interesting decorations and will give a good idea of how baths used to function in Roman times.
Bars and Bakeries -These bars are considered the first street food stands having counters with holes that were used to place containers that held drinks and food. The bakeries’ ovens look similar to old brick stone ovens. The House of the Baker has a garden area with millstones of lava used for grinding the wheat.
Streets – There are tracks worn in by the carriages on the street. There are also stone blocks in the street for pedestrians to step onto to cross the street. The curbs are much higher as the streets had water and waste flowing through them. The stone blocks in the street were also as high as the crosswalk, so people did not walk in the waste and water. These stone blocks also served as speed bumps. When the carriages were going through the city these would make the carriage driver slow down to get through them and not splash the waste water onto the pedestrians.
Just remember this is a place you could spend multiple days visiting so plan wisely to see the sites that interest you.