Do you know why there is an abundance of information both online and offline, about life in ancient Rome? This is partly attributed to the discovery of an ancient Roman city, Pompeii, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the title suggests, it was a “lost” city because Pompeii was buried by a carpet of thick volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in year 79 A.D. It had a population of about 20,000 before the volcano erupted. It was only rediscovered in 1599, while architect Domenico Fontana was trying to dig a channel. However, he did not explore the city further. Pompeii was only excavated in 1748 when King of Naples, Charles Bourbon, sent a surveying engineer, Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubiere, to find artifacts for the Spanish Court and the King's summer palace. Since then, there have been many excavations, which revealed to the modern world how Pompeiians lived and died in 79 A.D.
Here’s a video for you to have a glimpse of the remains of Pompeii.
What was really horrifying to us is that we were able to see the bodies of real people when they died. This was done through injecting liquid plaster into the empty spaces left by the decomposition of the bodies. The fact that a civilization existed made us question - what was life like for people in Pompeii before the eruption and how did this tragedy happen? Well, we can find out based on what is left of Pompeii.
Pompeii: The Beginnings
Pompeii was once inhabited by the Samnites, but was later conquered by the Romans between 343-290 BCE. Pompeii was later besieged by the troops of Publius Cornelius Sulla, nephew of Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, in 80 BCE and the city became a Roman colony. 4000-5000 legionaries were resettled in the town and a period of prosperity followed. A local senate (ordo decurionum) was formed and a new amphitheatre and a smaller theatre (odeion) were built.
Its close proximity to the Bay of Naples meant that trade could occur at its port. Also, as Pompeii is near Mount Vesuvius, the soils are fertile, which attracted people to live there and to farm agriculture. The town itself, was surrounded by a wall with few gates and there are wide paved streets in a largely regular layout. Pompeii also has a wide variety of buildings such as theatres, schools, baths, an arena, temples, brothels, and a market hall, and many villas designed in a Hellenistic style.
Pompeii: The Disaster
Other than the remains of the architecture, we were able to gain a greater insight of what happened through letters by Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness who described the eruption when it occurred. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was presumed to have died during the eruption.
Even before Mount Vesuvius erupted, there had been a massive earthquake in 62 CE which caused Pompeii's city walls and some buildings to collapse. However, no one at that time knew how to recognize the signs of a volcano eruption was and so most people continued to live in Pompeii after the repairs.
On August 24, 79 AD, 1 p.m., Mount Vesuvius erupted, which Pliny the Younger described as an "umbrella pine" shaped cloud which "sometimes looked blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it". However, as this "cloud" cooled further, solid particles started to rain down on Pompeii. The debris soon became denser and roofs began to collapse, killing some people. When the first phase of the eruption ended, a series of pyroclastic currents followed, which are fast-moving hot gas and rock ranging from 392 to 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit. The ashes reached every corner in the house and killed those who were hiding in it. However, about 10 feet of pumice continued to fell onto Pompeii till August 25, 79 AD, eventually burying the entire city, and probably killing the remaining survivors.
It is sad that an entire city and its population were lost due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. However, if not for this tragedy, which preserved the architecture, artifacts and the dead bodies of Pompeii extremely well, we would not have a wealth of information about how the Romans lived in the past, and also how did the people react during times of disaster.
Pompeii: The Aftermath (many years later)
Some of the many interesting sights in Pompeii...
Paved streets in Pompeii
The Lupanar was a famous brothel with erotic paintings on the walls of rooms. Each of the paintings depicted different types of sexual intercourse. It had 10 rooms with stone beds.
House of the Vettii
This house is an example of a Roman townhouse (domus). Like other townhouses, it has richly decorated murals, a beautiful atrium and garden. In the last picture, the square opening in the roof (compluvium) is to allow rainwater to be collected in the square-shaped hole (impluvium) below. The water will be used to cool the house or for household purposes.
The amphitheatre at Pompeii is the earliest known permanent stone amphitheatre in Italy. It was constructed around 70 AD, could seat around 20,000 people, and served not only Pompeii but also the inhabitants of surrounding towns.
If you visit Italy, do visit Pompeii! It is good that visitors can walk around the city, visit the museum, go into houses and buildings, and learn about what life was like for the Pompeiians. In this way, I feel that the Pompeiians did not die in vain.
I hope you enjoyed this post and have a greater appreciation for the History of Ancient Rome!