Roman history has always interested me. I love the idea of this complex and advanced society filled with bustling cities, philosophers and politicians thriving so long ago. Even more fascinating is that one of these cities could be destroyed and forgotten within just a few generations. It’s this fascination that pulls me towards visiting the Italian city of Pompeii.
History of Pompeii
Pompeii was founded in the 7th or 6th century BC by the Oscans of central Italy. It was a busy port city (although today it is about 3km from the shoreline) and an active market place. The city came under Roman control in the 1st century BC when Roman general Sulla claimed it for his army veterans. The Romans moved in and quickly started making architectural and cultural changes including the construction of an amphitheater, bath houses, theaters and temples to Roman gods. By the time of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption the city had grown in size to 20,000 residents.
In 63 AD there was a large earthquake (5 or 6 on the Richter scale) and almost every building in Pompeii was affected with some being destroyed completely. Many people left after this first quake and resettled in other Roman cities while those who stayed began to rebuild but were plagued by minor earthquakes for the next 16 years.
In 79 AD (there is some dispute as to whether it was August or November) there were a series of major earthquakes followed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Large pumice fragments (up to 3 inches in size) began falling on the city followed by fatal sulphurous gases. After 8 – 10 feet of pumice had covered the city a fine, moist ash began to fall. The ash fell for 3 days, suffocating those who breathed it in; in the end Pompeii was covered by 15 – 25 feet of volcanic material. It is estimated that 3/4 of the population died in the eruption. Recently a study of the eruption and its victims indicated that Vesuvius would have given off heat surges of at least 250 degrees celsius which would have caused instant death even if you were inside a building. This is now thought to be a major cause of deaths in Pompeii.
The discovery and excavation
During the 16th and 17th centuries workmen found relics from Pompeii but did not realize their significance and covered them again. Then, in 1710, a farmer digging a well found Herculaneum (a city also destroyed by Vesuvius) and, when it was rediscovered by workers constructing a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, excavation began in 1738. Pompeii was discovered soon after and excavations of the city started in 1748.
During the excavation most of the artifacts found at Pompeii were sent to museums but, in the 19th century it was discovered that the moist ash had dried around the bodies of Pompeii citizens creating hollow molds where the bodies had been. Archaeologists began filling the molds with plaster and now have figures which are very detailed, showing facial expressions, posture and clothing. In the 1920s artifacts stopped being removed from Pompeii and the city began being preserved instead. In 1997 the city was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today the entire site has been explored with over half having been excavated.
Pompeii is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations with 2.6 million visitors in 2008. Unfortunately due to erosion, light exposure, water damage, poor excavating practices, vandalism and over use the site has sustained some damage and is now less accessible to tourism. However, the areas of the city that are open to the public are huge and can take many days to fully explore.
To visit Pompeii you will need to make your way to Naples, Italy (the closest city) and from there take a car, bus or train to site. There are a few companies that can take you on a walking tour of Pompeii (most of which get great reviews) although it is possible to pay the 11 euro ticket price to enter and wander through on your own (maps and audio tours are also available).
This one’s on my list for my eventual month-long tour of Europe but in the meantime if you make it over there make sure to take pictures, I need someone to live vicariously through!
Have you been to Pompeii? Was it amazing? Do you want to go? Will you take me with you?