Once upon a time, there was an ancient Roman city called Pompeii. The city had an estimated 20,000 people (people that were much shorter than there are now^) but was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. While the city of Herculaneum was actually the city that was destroyed by volcanic lava, Pompeii was buried under 13-20 feet of volcanic ash and rocks. When Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, the new land that buried Pompeii was covered in vegetation, but as it turned out, the area underneath this land revealed much about the earlier civilization of this city.
I was lucky enough to tour the ancient ruins of Pompeii yesterday, as it is close to Positano and Naples. I’d heard about Pompeii in my history and geology classes, but seeing it in person was so much different. So much of the city has been excavated and preserved and it was amazing to see how you can feel the life that was once there. Our amazing tour guide, Claudia, from Pompei Tours, walked my family and me through the ruins, pointing out which places would serve as stores, bakeries, restaurants, wealthy households, and gymnasiums. The bigger houses still had mosaics in tact that sat in front of the main entrance to show off the owners’ wealth.
Among the houses, was evidence of the water system along with the drainage system for the city. Larger rocks sat in the roads so that people could cross the streets without coming in contact with the sewage that was poured into the roads. Claudia also showed us a large theatre and an area behind the theatre where the gladiators would train before they were sent off to fight the criminals. They were often sent to fight in Rome, but there was a colosseum nearby that was sometimes used in Pompeii.
In addition, a common business at the time was a brothel, which was legalized and taxed in the community. These houses still had rooms with uncomfortable looking stone beds along with graphic images painted on the walls, serving as a “menu” for customers at the time. The reason these images survived thousands of years is because the paintings are frescoes, meaning they are done on wet plaster. This preserves the color and design for endless amounts of time.
Finally, among the ruins, we saw leftover remnants that hadn’t made it into museums. Here were items such as bowls, jewelry, and even carbonized bread. I was shocked that these things had been preserved until now. So, what happened to the people of Pompeii? Unfortunately, it is a huge tragedy that this city was wiped out. However, it is lucky that the city had about two days notice after hearing about what happened in Herculaneum. Many people got out of the town on boats; however, there weren’t enough boats for everyone to get out of Pompeii in time. The remaining people suffocated from the volcanic ash, and many of their remnants have been found during the excavations. This has allowed archaeologists to create human casts using plaster to fill the empty spaces that were left in the debris. Here, we saw casts of a person curled up in a ball, a baby, as well as a dog with a full set of teeth.
I was truly fascinated by Pompeii and learning that Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano that can erupt again. I think that taking a tour was key to understanding the ancient city. If you have limited time and are between seeing Herculaneum, Mount Vesuvius, or Pompeii, I would highly recommend Pompeii, especially our tour guide, Claudia!