I remember learning about Pompeii when I was in grade school and thinking about those poor people who were burned alive. Never in a million years did I ever think I would get the opportunity to visit, not once, but twice! Pompeii is relatively close to Sorrento, Rome, and to Naples. In fact, day trips to Pompeii can be organized from any of those cities.
A Brief History of Pompeii:
Established in 600 BC, it was inhabited by the Greeks and the Etruscans before it became a thriving Roman port city. It is estimated that there were about 20,000 people who called Pompeii home. Because it was a hustle-bustle port city, there were many businesses that catered to soldiers; brothels, restaurants, entertainment venues, and public baths. Based on the years of excavations, we know that there were also about 40 bakeries and about 130 bars!
Life was good in Pompeii. People came, they went, and everyday business took place. The land was fertile. All of the buildings were adorned with white ground marble-made stucco facades. It seems like life was perfect with a beautiful view of Mount Vesuvius and then, it wasn’t!
What Happened in Pompeii?
It was a normal day in the life of those living in Pompeii. The bread was baking, tables were set for meals and people were living life. And, then, it happened! Beginning at 1 pm on October 24, 79 AD (*****this date is a contested date), Vesuvius erupted. The eruption lasted more than 18 hours! During this disaster, pumice rocks, ash, and dust were spewed 12 miles high. Can you imagine living in Pompeii and seeing this massive eruption? Remember, back then many people still believed in mythical gods. Did they think the Gods were angry? Hard to imagine what they thought!
Then the winds began, blowing all the eruption debris straight towards Pompeii and Herculaneum. The smart thing to do was get out of dodge and most everyone did except for about 2000 people. White ash had settled over the city, collapsing many roofs, leaving the building structures intact. The eruption seemed to have stopped and then a double whammy…. the next morning a flow of molten rock, lava, toxic gases, and other debris hit Pompeii. This flow of molten materials is estimated to have been between >800 °C, or >1,500 °F! Clearly, at these temperatures, nothing survived and this was the absolute final blow to Pompeii. The area became buried under more than 30 feet of ash.
The actual location of Pompeii and Herculaneum became a mystery for almost 1500 years. There was so much ash and debris from the Vesuvius eruption, that the port and surrounding areas were literally filled in making the area unrecognizable.
***** Originally, the date of the eruption was set on August 24 of 79Ad. In 2018, during excavations, autumnal fruit was found and based on Pliney’s, an eyewitness to the event, writings, the date was changed to October. Taking into account that the event occurred in 79AD, no exact date can really be placed on this disaster.
Was the Disaster Inevitable or Just Bad Luck?
It had been centuries since Vesuvius had last erupted. At the time, history was passed by storytellers and some documented writings. There was no knowledge at the time of the connection between seismic activity and volcanic eruptions. The truth is there had been small tremors occurring prior to the catastrophe. The pressure had built up within the volcano and this is what caused this horrible disaster. Today we know that small eruptions are good and we welcome them as they release pressure from within the volcano preventing major eruptions. The last eruption was in 1944 and prior to that in 1631.
Based on everything I have read and what I learned during my visits to Pompeii, I personally, have concluded that this disaster was a combination of bad luck and a lack of scientific knowledge. It was a horrible moment in time and changed the world as it was known then.
A Common Misconception:
Originally people believed that most Pompeii residents suffocated from the layer of ash. After research and continuing debate, the more common theory is that those who perished died from the extreme heat. It is estimated the air temperature was 900 F. This theory is backed up by the positions in which many bodies were found. they were found in casual positions, sitting at tables, working on a machine, etc. This indicates the element of surprise that instantly extreme heat can present.
Also, the plaster casts of the bodies, contain actual remains. When the plaster was placed into the hollows of ash, there were still bones of the people. All of the soft tissue had decomposed, but the bones, after all this time had been preserved under mountains of ash.
(I used the online booking app for tours, Viator. They offer so much pre-tour information, which allows you to “know before you go”! The vouchers are easy to download to your phone and you are all set! I used TripAdvisor for the reviews and past guest comments, which I found very helpful! And of course, for the hotel and flights, I got great deals using Kiwi.com. I highly recommend all three of those vendors when booking your next trip!)
The Excavation of the Old World:
Excavation of Pompeii began in 1748 but it wasn’t until 1763 that excavators realized what they had found. An inscription, reading Rei Publicae Pompeianorum (Republic of Pompeii) was uncovered, exciting the excavators that they had found the long-elusive buried city.
Giuseppe Fiorelli became the hero of Pompeii in 1860 as he rose to “Director of Excavations”. He stopped the ongoing dig to set in place a more organized dig which included cataloging all finds and mapping the roadways. He is also the one who came up with the method of preserving bodies! It wasn’t until my second visit to Pompeii that I realized what I was viewing were not real bodies! (Sometimes, I can be a bit dense!) His method was to pour plaster into the hollows where bodies had been and since disintegrated. By pouring a cast like this, once hardened, the end-product was a mold of the body that had previously been there.
Excavations were stopped during the World Wars. and then resumed again in 1951. Since the initial excavations began, there have been many changes in directorship, funding, and techniques. One thing, however, has remained consistent and that is the importance of the excavation and the glimpse that it gives us into ancient life.
Why Is the Excavation of Pompeii So Darned Important?
The excavation of Pompeii is important kind of for the same reason, travel is important. It gives us a glimpse into past societies; cultures, lifestyles, city planning, and land use. We learn from history; even the history that isn’t so fantastic provides us with the tools to prevent those not-so-great events/ideas from repeating themselves.
The excavation is only 2/3 complete at this point. That being said, in these ruins, we have an idea of the religious significance of this ancient culture. We see, from the bakeries which included mills and kneading machines, that wheat was important to the diet of the inhabitants. From the fulleries, we see the importance of early manufacturing. We get an idea of the socio-economics based on the type of homes and where they were located in relationship to the major municipal areas. Moving in a future direction, snippets of the past helps us to organize our forward motion as a whole.
How Did I get to this Ancient City?
The first time I visited Pompeii, it was out of Sorrento. I was on a cruise and since Pompeii was so close, it seemed a great idea to hop a train and skip Sorrento. There is more than one entrance to Pompeii and the train lets you off right in front of one of those gates. Easy-peasy! The train ride was lovely with musicians getting on and off the train serenading the passengers, and locals going from one town to another. I found it very authentic Italy.
My second visit was by organized tour, once again out of Sorrento. This time was during the time when there were still many Covid restrictions. Once again, on a cruise, the mandate in Italy was cruisers could disembark in Italian Ports only if they were part of a ship-sponsored shore excursion. As I’ve stated in previous articles, I’m really not a “tour” kind of gal. I much prefer to explore on my own, but sometimes you do what you have to do. The tour turned out to be really good and honestly, I learned and saw more than I had on my previous independent visit.
Entering through one of the main entrances, surprisingly off of a very busy road, there is a beautiful, well-manicured walkway leading to the ruins. It’s hard to fathom that just past that busy road is the well-preserved, ancient city of Pompeii.
My Time at Pompeii:
Pompeii is amazing. If you haven’t been, go! If you have been, go again! As previously stated 2/3 (about 14 hectares) is excavated with excavations continuing.
As you walk the roads of ancient Pompeii, it is easy to allow your imagination to transport you back in time; to close your eyes and feel the hustle-bustle of this ancient port city; hear the sounds of daily life; smell the scent of baking bread! The roadways are clear and wide. The aqueducts are intact. The homes and types of business are well identified. Entertainment venues are still present and identifiable. For example, the brothels are identified with the symbol of a phallus on the exterior. The public areas are in locations that make sense to the lifestyles of that era. Many of the businesses appear as if they are still in operation; with baking ovens and tools as if they had just been placed there. The intricate mosaics and frescos are still present and beautiful, albeit a bit decayed. The only thing missing is the inhabitants.
The following video is long, however, in the first few minutes, the guide tells you how to skip around and watch only the things you have a specific interest in.
Video courtesy of Pro Walk Tours
Pompeii is one of those destinations that you can visit numerous times and always leave with new impressions. Not only is there so much to see, that it can’t possibly be absorbed in one visit, but the continuing excavation reveals more and more of this ancient city.
I hope you have enjoyed this story about the Ancient City of Pompeii; its foundation, its destruction, its re-discovery, and my personal experience of exploration! I encourage all of you lovely readers to leave comments: your thoughts, your experience, etc.
Until next time friends, remember “To Travel is to Live!”