If you’ve ever read a newspaper, poured concrete, used a public toilet or walked across a floor with radiant heating, your life has been touched by an invention created by the ancient Romans. Even our current Gregorian calendar is based on the older Julian calendar. The months of the year? All named by the Romans. To say that they’ve been influential in the way we live today is an understatement. So with that in mind, let’s walk down an ancient Roman road into one of their most famous cities: Pompeii, Italy.
I’d wanted to visit Pompeii since reading about it in my dad’s National Geographic magazines when I was still in elementary school. It was a fascinating, mysterious place that helped foster my love of archaeology and classical history, which I still carry to this day.
I can tell you honestly, that it was everything I’d imagined and more.
In the 1st Century AD, Pompeii was a thriving resort town for wealthy Romans looking for a little vacation getaway. But the town had inhabitants long before that, perhaps as early as the 7th Century BC. Around 20,000 people lived in and around the town at its height. Pompeii had cafes, factories, taverns, bath houses, street food kiosks, and world-class shopping (for its time).
It was also well-known in the ancient world for its high-quality wines and garum, a fermented fish sauce (a predecessor to today’s Worcestershire Sauce).
Everything changed in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. This is what Vesuvius looks like now:
13-20 feet of ash, pumice and poisonous gasses rained down on the towns and villages at its base, including Herculaneum and Pompeii. Approximately 2,000 residents died in Pompeii alone. The level of destruction was so vast that the surviving residents of Herculaneum, the smaller towns of Stabiae and Oplontis, and Pompeii, chose to abandon their cities rather than rebuild.
The buried cities were somewhat forgotten by locals over time. Although a few Pompeiian walls were unearthed in 1599 while an underground channel was being dug, the site remained relatively undisturbed.
The Rediscovery of Pompeii
In the early 1700s, a Spanish military engineer named Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre rediscovered Herculaneum while prospecting the estate of the future king of Spain, Charles III. The king granted Alcubierre permission and funding to further excavate the city in 1738. After conducting extensive excavations there, he moved to the site of Pompeii in 1748. This is when focused exploration at the site revealed the remains of buildings.
An Italian archaeologist named Guiseppe Fiorelli took over the dig in 1863.
In the early days of archaeology, the process wasn’t very scientific, systematic or kind. Artifacts often ended up in private collections and museums through looting, pillaging, and by chiseling frescoes and decorative elements off the walls. Numerous irreplaceable paintings were destroyed in the process. But luckily, some paintings survived. The colours remain vibrant after centuries of being hidden from public view:
You can see the blank squares in these photos, where frescoes were removed:
Things started to change by the end of the 18th Century, and more detailed journals and drawings were made to preserve the information gleaned from the excavated areas. Archaeological digs have continued in Pompeii ever since, but chronic under funding has caused some serious issues, and about 2/3 of the town has yet to be uncovered.
Pompeii’s Plaster Bodies
If you’re keen on history, archaeology, or architecture, you will love Pompeii. If you’re fascinated by the power of nature’s destructive fury, Pompeii obviously offers that aspect as well. And, if you enjoy tales of the salacious, or even creepy kind, Pompeii will give you what you’re after, too, you salacious creepers, you. Because there is definitely a creepy vibe going on here. Mostly because of these:
Hollow spaces under the debris from Vesuvius revealed body imprints, left behind after the victims’ remains decayed. The archaeologist Guiseppe Fiorelli discovered that if he filled the cavities with plaster, it resulted in casts of the people who didn’t escape the destruction.
This really brings home the fact that there were real people here at one time, just going about their daily activities when tragedy struck.
Pompeii’s Seedier Side
Now for the seekers of the salacious: brothels. Pompeii had them, as well as many other Roman towns. Pompeii also had distinctive signage for travellers so they didn’t get lost along the way. Or, heaven forbid, have to ask for directions:
Not only did they have brothels, but they had paintings on the walls to indicate each lady’s, shall we say, particular specialties. The ancient Romans certainly weren’t prudish, but the people who uncovered the paintings centuries later were. So they covered up the brothel walls again for many years, to protect those with delicate sensibilities.
The Romans loved bawdy humour, graphic graffiti, and erotic art, but changing standards of morality in the 1800s forced the museums to lock this kind of art away into a Secret Cabinet. Metal cabinets were built over the more erotic or pornographic art at Pompeii. The cabinets were only opened to men – for an additional fee. (Women weren’t allowed to view them at all). This became an early form of peep show. The cabinets were opened and closed again to the public several times throughout the years, but were finally opened permanently at the Naples National Archaeological Museum in 2005 in a separate room.
Mosaics in Pompeii
One of the many things that I loved about Pompeii was realizing how little people have changed in 2,000 years. Take this floor mosaic for example, an early welcome mat:
Cave Canem, or “Beware of Dog.” How fun is that?
How about this welcome sign?
This floor mosaic is especially impressive. It’s the mosaic of Alexander the Great attempting to kill Darius. It was assembled in a private home called the House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) around 100 BC. The original mosaic is now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum:
But there was one object I wanted to see more than any of the others. It was also located at the House of the Faun. In university I took a course on classical architecture. For my big presentation I chose to research the House of the Faun, all because I had seen a photo of their fountain statue in a textbook and instantly fell in love with it. Totally, completely, love at first sight:
Oh, how I adore him! Just the slightly crazed look in his eyes, his wild untamed curls, his wacky dancing pose. He just makes me smile. When I talked about the statue in my presentation, I made a side comment to the class that “he kind of looks like some of the guys I’ve met at the bar.” To which my professor replied dryly, “perhaps you should frequent a different establishment.”
As a side note, this isn’t the original statue, only a replica. The original was also moved to the Naples National Archaeological Museum. But you know what? If I didn’t know better it wouldn’t have mattered. Seeing the replica at the original site was good enough for me.
Pompeii’s Uncertain Future
Unfortunately, the entire site of Pompeii is under threat due to poor preservation, so the sooner you visit the better. In 2010, the House of the Gladiators collapsed; in 2013 a wall of an ancient shop toppled; and in March of 2014 three walls crumbled within three consecutive days of heavy rains. Most recently, in 2017 a wall collapsed at the House of the Citharede (Casa del Citarista).
At least a dozen buildings at this UNESCO World Heritage site have fallen in the past four years. This is another reason archaeologists have only excavated 1/3 of the city.
Around the Site of Pompeii
If you like to shop for souvenirs, you’ll have plenty of options on the outskirts of Pompeii. But be aware that it’s very touristy. That means that you have to be careful about inflated prices and scams, like fake coral jewelry.
I was personally on the hunt for a little House of the Faun statue to bring home. Well look no further, they have them, in every size and decorative finish you could imagine.
Vendors in Italy expect you to haggle. I learned this quickly, because when I asked a vendor the price of one of his statues, he said 15 Euros. At which point I hesitated, only for a split second, but before I could squeal, “SOLD!” he waved his hand and said “Ok, 10 Euros. But only for you.”
I don’t normally enjoy haggling, and that had been my first experience ever with it. Really, that’s all it took? It was like he wasn’t even trying. Be aware though, it’s usually not that easy and you’ll probably have to go back and forth a few times to get the price you want.
You can easily spend several hours here, even half a day, and you probably still won’t see everything. We spent about four hours at Pompeii and felt like we missed a lot. But, after a while you might get a bit “ruined-out”, and everything starts to look the same. So aim to see the highlights and most spectacular frescoes and paintings first if you can, and then take time to just wander the ancient streets at your own pace until you reach your own “ruin threshold.”
There are numerous tour bus operators in Rome to get to Pompeii, or you can take the Circumvesuviana Napoli-Sorrento train from either Naples or Sorrento, which takes 30-40 minutes. If you’re starting in Rome, take the train to Naples first, then the Circumvesuviana to Pompeii Scavi. There’s also the SITA bus from Naples, so there are no excuses for missing this open-air museum; it’s an absolute must if you’re going to Italy.
For more information, check out the Pompeii website: http://www.pompeiisites.org/