Pompeii was once a flourishing as a coastal retreat for wealthy Romans. It contained a bustling marketplace, beautiful homes, taverns, bathhouses, temples of worship, magnificent architecture, an arena (older than the Roman coliseum) that sat 20,000 people, and a flourishing arts and crafts science. Life was good.
That all changed on one horrific day in 79 AD with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The eruption blasted a cloud of volcanic ash and poisonous gas 21 miles into air that could be seen from hundreds of miles away as volcanic debris pummeled the towns below. About 12 hours into the eruption, the massive cloud of gas and volcanic ash collapsed resulting in a pyroclastic flow that rolled down the mountain at 400+ mph with temperatures reaching 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Only five miles from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was instantly engulfed in this searing flow and buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash and pumice.
As many as 16,000 people perished that day in the cities and villas around Mount Vesuvius. The number of dead in Pompeii is estimated at 2,000 and several hundred more in the nearby town of Herculaneum. This suggests there may have been a short window to escape. Some of Herculaneum’s citizens were possibly able to escape to Naples before the pyroclastic flow hit. Others were likely killed along the roads beyond the cities while trying to escape.
In terms of preservation, one interesting aspect of this eruption is the apparent lack of fire. The poisonous gases were oxygen free and no oxygen means no fire. Instead of burning, natural materials like wood were carbonized. In Herculaneum there are some relatively well-preserved wooden pieces such as ceiling beams, beds, shelves, and even the famous papyrus scrolls.
Along with Herculaneum, Pompeii serves as a time capsule of Roman life in the first century. While much of Rome’s cultural and architectural grandeur were destroyed as the Roman Empire collapsed, Pompeii remained frozen in time and free from vandalism and looting for 1700 years. In 1748, archeological excavation of Pompeii began and soon revealed the city and life in ancient Rome to the world.
Pompeii was originally developed by the Greeks around 600 BC as a port city. Over time, Greek influence receded and Roman influence rose. By 200 BC Pompeii was part of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC. By 79 AD, Rome had transformed from a Republic led by Senators to an Empire led by an Emperor. The Romans always thought highly of Greek culture (adopting much of it as their own and adding to it) so transitions from Greek to Roman control were not typically disruptive or oppressive. The influence of Greek culture is evident throughout Pompeii.
In 79 AD the world was only 79 years removed from Jesus walking the earth. His relatively recent presence hadn’t yet registered in Pompeii as Roman and Greek gods were still being worshipped. The Temple of Apollo (image below), built in 129 BC, is one example.
Apollo was a Greek god also worshipped by the Romans. He was the god of light, reason, truth, art, and healing. This temple had 48 columns surrounding the perimeter. As I understand it, these columns would have supported a roof that formed a covered walkway around the courtyard with the temple in the center.
Moving closer to the temple (image below), you can see the remains of stairs once topped with white marble and the remains of what was once an enclosed temple. As you can imagine, there is little indication of any roofing in Pompeii due to the tons of volcanic debris that nearly leveled the city.
Across from the Temple of Apollo is the Basilica of Pompeii built around 120 BC. This was a covered structure with walls and 28 interior columns. In the picture below, we are looking into the Basilica from the Forum. The Basilica was a central building for matters of justice as well as commercial activities and one of the most important buildings in Pompeii.
Below, we are looking at an outer wall of the Basilica. There was another level to this wall that would have extended the height by 50%.
At the end of the Basilica is the elevated tribunal where magistrates would sit. The tribunal gives you a sense of the Basilica’s height that would have extended around building. The bases of columns in the photo below were on the interior of the building and would have extended upward to the second-story ceiling.
Given the administration of justice that occurred in the Basilica, it seems fitting the building would be located next to the Temple of Apollo – god of reason and truth. Leaving the Basilica, you step into the Forum. This was a central area of commerce and political activity in Pompeii.
The Forum was lined with columns, statues, and other buildings of importance. The image below is looking down the western edge of the Forum. There was a second level of shorter columns on top of what we now see and a roof extending to the left that provided a covered walkway around the forum.
At the north end of the Forum sits the Temple of Jupiter. Jupiter was the chief Roman god and held a position similar to Zeus for the Greeks. Jupiter was the god of the sky, thunder, and king of all gods. Symbols associated with Jupiter include the lightening bolt and eagle. This temple has six columns across the front and five down the side. The roof would have extended from a central building out to the front columns to create a covered but open entrance. To the left and right of the temple are triumphal arches. One was dedicated to Augustus, the first emperor or Rome.
Leaving the Forum, I traveled out to the edge of the city to visit the Villa dei Misteri. I had the unique experience of imagining what it would be like to walk through the Pompeii “suburbs”.
Knowing Mount Vesuvius is still active left me with an eerie feeling while walking along the destroyed homes and quiet streets. It erupted in 1700 BC and again in 79 AD with a dormant period of 1800 years between eruptions. Knowing it has been over 1900 years since the last eruption, I had the sense that it could happen at any moment. This feeling was even stronger on the quiet edges of the city.
After a somewhat lengthy walk, I arrive at the Villa dei Misteri. A highlight of this home is that it contains frescoes depicting the secret initiation ritual for women into the worship of Dionysus. Like Apollo, Dionysus was also a Greek god worshipped by the Romans. He was associated with wine, theatre, fertility, and spiritual ecstasy. The Romans often referred to him as Bacchus.
Having run low on time, I make my way back to the rendezvous point for the tour group I had abandoned after arriving at Pompeii. The tour guide was moving way to slow, burned time on rather mundane topics, and wasn’t going to all the places I wanted to see. I could feel precious minutes wasting away so I broke from the group rather quickly. If I were to do it again, I would download one of the apps for Pompeii, get to the city as early in the day as possible, and explore it by myself.
I really enjoy history and loved my visit to Pompeii. If you are visiting cities like Naples, Sorrento, or the Amalfi Coast you will be within striking distance of Pompeii. This is a trip should make. Also, the city of Herculaneum is about 10 miles away and said to be even better preserved than Pompeii. Designing a day that gives allows 4-6 hours in Pompeii and 3 hours in Herculaneum is how I will do it…next time.