I was in Primary school when I first heard about the city of Pompeii. I was ghoulishly enthralled with the thought of people going about their ordinary daily chores, and suddenly being turned to stone from the eruption of the nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. Somehow, I thought that this was recent news. That it had just happened in a country a long way from the safety of Australia. I was both horrified and curious, and as I listened to the teacher telling us about it, my mind conjured up all sorts of images of people standing in front of the open fridge, looking for something to eat, and then – whoosh - all of a sudden they were stone statues.
Well, fast forward many, MANY years, and I was on my way to visit Pompeii, in the Campania region of Italy, not far from Naples.
We entered Pompeii through the Porta Marina gate. The ticket price included a pocket guide and map and all places are numbered so that you can guide yourself around. There are also numbered street signs to help tourists. I must say that I got hopelessly lost at several stages and wasted valuable time in trying to find exactly where I was. I eventually ran into Matt, who also admitted to being a bit lost. Because it was so late, there were very few other tourists there, and it was quite eerie walking around this deserted ancient city on my own. Our other companion, Deemie, also got lost – even worse than us – and she did not make our arranged meeting time and place, meaning that we in fact missed our train to Naples and therefore our connection train back to Rome. Anyway, I digress.
August 24th 79 AD changed the lives of the residents of Pompeii forever. Despite what we now recognize as early-warning signs for an impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the 20,000 people who lived in Pompeii had long ago stopped thinking of the mountain as a volcano and so continued about their daily business. There had been a severe earthquake in the region only a month or two prior to the cataclysmic eruption of nearby Mt Vesuvius, but their complacency lost them their lives. Pompeii wasn’t the only city to be destroyed during the eruption of August 24 79AD. Nearby Herculaneium was also inundated and in fact many say it is actually a better place to visit because, unlike Pompeii, it wasn’t ransacked by looters over the early centuries.
So, what actually happened? Matt and I could see Mt Vesuvius rising above the landscape, but it looked so far away, we were scratching our heads trying to work out how lava flowed this far to smother the people of Pompeii. Well, in fact, it wasn’t the lava that did it. It was ash and pumice (a light, porous stone), and poisonous gasses that did it. The relentlessness of the downpour of ash and pumice lasted for about 24 hours and dropped 60 feet of detritus on the city and its people. However, the volcanologists now say that those who did in fact run when the eruption started, were able to get away, but because the initial stages of the raining down was not lethal, most residents thought that, provided they sheltered indoors in a secure place, they would be safe until it stopped, when they could emerge and commence the cleanup.
But, well into the night, a series of pyroclastic surges and flows occurred. According to the BBC History site*, a pyroclastic flow is a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas, which rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. Imagine wave upon wave of intense heat and liquefied rock fragments, sweeping through the town, asphyxiating everyone in their path. The nearby town of Herculaneium copped it first, then it came to Pompeii. So strong and relentless was the onslaught, that it actually changed the whole geography of the Sorrentine peninsular. Pompeii once was a coastal town. It is now well inland.
In the early centuries after the eruption of 79AD, looters tunnelled in under and took all the valuables. The city remained hidden until it was discovered by archaeologists in the 17th century.
The city of Pompeii today is still an active archaeological dig. There are many plaster casts of the mummified bodies of people who were overcome in the 79AD devastation. The poses of the bodies are quite poignant, as they are in fact, just as I was told back in Primary school, ordinary people doing ordinary things, turned to stone. Some poses show the futility of their demise, obviously trying to shelter but resigned to a certain death.
But apart from the looting which took place many centuries ago, some of the artwork is surprisingly well preserved and is a wonderful look at how this thriving and wealthy city and its inhabitants lived.
The most striking thing for me was seeing the ingenuity of the Romans whose skills at construction and road building is legendary. Their well laid out streets were made of big blocks of stone. Really hard to walk on, so imagine how rough to be in a chariot driving down one of these. The chariots’ wheels have worn deep ruts in the rock. There are massive stepping stones across the roads for pedestrians, and narrow blocks down each side for footpaths.
The city of Pompeii had every modern convenience imaginable. We saw kitchens, bathrooms with running water (the Romans ability to provide clean, running water is just amazing), communal pumps, lavish meeting rooms, nice suburban homes, and brothels. Yes, brothels! Apparently the Pompeians of 79AD were a fairly randy lot! The walls are adorned with erotic images. Exquisite artwork depicting family life and the stories of their revered gods and goddesses, such as this one of Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa.
All too soon our time was up and we had to meet up to catch the train back to Rome. In a perfect world, I would prefer to take a whole day out to explore Pompeii, Herculaneium and the Ercalano archaeological site and will do that next time I visit. If you go in summer, take water and a hat, and wear very stout shoes. It is hard going, but very well worth it.