Beneath the ashes
Just south of Rome near modern Naples is Pompeii. Founded in the 8th-6th centuries BC at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, it was a thriving ancient Roman town until 79 AD, when the volcano of Vesuvius erupted. In a matter of hours the entire town was covered beneath several metres of ash and pumice, and all life was extinguished. Many unfortunate Pompeiians died in their homes while those who fled to coast were suffocated by the fumes. Rediscovered in the Middle Ages, the site, like nearby Ostia
, now provides an invaluable insight into life at the time: objects, buildings and paintings have been astoundingly well-preserved, as they were buried away from light and moisture for over 1,500 years.
So why would the Pompeiians settle beside an active volcano? The answer lies in the soil: the volcanic nature of the Sarno valley meant that the land was extremely fertile, so its inhabitants enjoyed a very prosperous agricultural lifestyle. The town was also in a great strategic position to defend itself against invasion. Pompeii flourished under agricultural advancement and maritime trade and soon became one of the wealthiest and busiest cities in the Roman Empire. Visitors can still see examples of this affluence in the buildings and relics on show in Pompeii today.
A wide range of buildings survive, from the lavish villas of nobles and rich merchants with ornate decorations to the humble houses of workmen built around their studios or shops. The House of Vettii has the best-preserved frescoes in the town, and depicts the god Priapus warding off evil spirits with his enormous manhood. The House and Workshop of Verecundus is particularly interesting for its insights into working life, and the beautiful frescoes showing Mercury, Venus and other gods protecting workers in their daily enterprise.
One of Pompeii’s best-preserved villas is the Villa of the Mysteries. Inside is perhaps the largest surviving painting of the ancient world: a magnificent frieze of a new bride being initiated into the cult of Dionysus, the wine god. Just as sumptuous is the House of Menander, with its beautiful Corinthian columns, paintings and courtyard: many precious artefacts of silver and gold were found here (now housed in Naples Archaeological Museum).
Pompeii had its own forum, where there are a number of sacred temples. The 6th century Temple of Apollo displays huge statues of the god and his twin Diana, and a column topped by a sundial. The centre of religious life in Pompeii was the huge Temple of Jupiter, king of the gods, whose head was found here. Visitors can see sacrificial scenes in the Temple of Vespasian and the splendid Temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The prosperous Pompeiians also had a number of baths and two theatres; the amphitheatre, built in 80 BC, which is the oldest still standing in the world, held about 12,000 people.
The town was first rediscovered in 1599, when the excavation of an underground channel uncovered some frescoed rooms. The architect Domenico Fontana swiftly reburied them. This act may have saved them from the violence of the counter-reformation: the paintings’ frequently erotic content would have been deemed in very bad taste at the time. Even today, minors are not allowed to view the Priapus mural without the permission of an adult!
Proper excavation took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, during which Giuseppe Fiorelli invented the plaster injection technique that allows us to see the bodies of victims as casts of the cavities they left in the ash. Many of these are now on view in the Naples Archaeological Museum, and their extraordinary preservation of the inhabitants’ dying moments is very moving. Don’t miss a daytrip to Pompeii for a poignant and truly remarkable vision of life - and death - in the Roman Empire.