I think nothing impressed me more than Pompei during our trip on the Amalfitano Coast of Italy.
Yes, we’ve seen landscapes, we’ve seen great bathing spots, we’ve seen old streets, with the typical Italian flavour all over it, we’ve eaten incredible sweets and delicious seafood, we’ve walked among vineyards, lemon trees orchards and we’ve seen the Tyrrhenian Sea from all sorts of viewpoints.
Still… nothing got to me like the immense heritage of Pompeii.
The Roman city without Romans
It’s weird after you’ve seen Rome as a child.
A city that evolved on top of a Roman city. The ancient buildings there (as much as I remember it, though I have to go back someday) have survived either because excavation took place there or because they have survived. Mainly monuments that is. It was hard to tear down the Colosseum. No matter on which side of politics you sat (thank God they didn’t have communism though) you couldn’t just bring it down with some explosives. I guess that as a ruler of the city, one way or another, you would have tried to preserve those immense structures, that took time and effort to build no matter what age we would be speaking about.
It’s even weirder to see Sarmizegetusa Ulpia as an adult.
That’s the Roman capital of the Dacia Roman Province, part of what is now Romania. It was taken in 106 and because it was a province for which the Romans fought hard to take under their wings, they also built a Roman-style metropolis here. Unfortunately, the site is more unearthed then excavated but even so, I managed to get a glimpse of what that city meant in terms of longevity and systematisation.
But Pompeii is different…
…and that’s because the city is still there, the only things missing are wood components and inhabitants. More or less the city would function, in the conditions of those ages. On top of it, there was and still is nothing to fuck up the excavations. There was no other city or settlement to take place and grow on top of it. It’s just buried in the ground, waiting to be shown the light of day once more. And thank God, as far as I’ve seen it, the Italian authorities invest massively in excavating it furthermore.
Because my girlfriend had a good inspiration and we’ve taken a tour guide, we’ve had the luck to be entertained for about two hours with a very charming, Italian guy. In his ’50s I suppose, with very good English and enough calm to keep answering my questions about the place. If you hear a guy in the crowd constantly asking the guide for details, there’s a good chance that the annoying person is me. Yeap!
But the guy was cool enough and at some point, I felt he enjoyed the talk.
That’s how I found out that after the tragedy here, after the famous eruption of 79 A.D., Emperor Titus thought about trying to reconstruct Pompeii but then decided not to as Rome regarded the libertinism in Pompeii (orgies, parties and generally free-living) as the main reason for which the Gods brought the mountain down on them. Of course, Pompeii was not the only city affected by this eruption, Herculaneum and Stabiae were also destroyed but Pompeii was a very flourishing metropolis, right down by the sea, taking in all the trade of the area and centralising the wealth of the very rich, volcanic soil all around.
The city was totally systemised, all street intersections being a right angle, with main interest buildings in the corners, for better access.
They had FAST FOOD
Yeah, you could say that the Romans invented the concept.
They had Thermopolium, a sort of tavernas, where you could get in and buy food kept in big jars, ready-made. Usually, it was dried food, dried fish. Also, drinks were available at the counter and some of the fancier Thermopoliums even had rooms for renting. At which premises you could also book a hooker, brothels being not only a fashion back then but also legal.
The majority of the inhabitants would be eating out during the day and that’s why they needed this means of alimentation. The average Pompeii citizen didn’t have the time to cook at home during the day as they were working as long as there was light out. They needed to eat on the go. A little bit like us, today…
The aristocratic class, on the other hand, could afford slaves and would develop their affairs mostly from the comfort of their villas.
The Villa of Siricus
If one would decide to remake these building’s roof, it would discover a very welcoming place, even luxurious in some degree by today’s standards. The aristocratic people living here would have generous living places and their properties would spread from one normal square (fitting among the other buildings on the street) or even up to two, three lots. The charming guide took us to visit one of the villas in the city, the one that is more or less the most famous in the site. That is because here multiple elements were preserved very well:
- frescas and mural paintings
- the interior courtyard with the fountain and the basin underneath
- the inscription hailing profit on the pavement of the main entrance
We don’t know much about Siricus. The things found about him until now show us that he was part of the political and commercial class of the city so he was in the top classes, a wealthy man. He would welcome his customers and business partners in the atrium of the villa, while he was standing at his office in right near the fountain in the atrium. Somehow he would look to intimidate anybody that would be looking to make business with him, showing his power and persuasion.
The villa was in the middle of a renovation when disaster hit. You can see that from the unfinished mural paintings of which one shows a dead drunk Hercules. A normal thing for a city like Pompeii where drinks and pleasure were available and abundant that even God’s would be looking down and thinking about taking part in that.
The ones that stayed behind
The archaeologists found 5 bodies inside the villa. Four of them were found 5 meters above the original ground of the city, the pavement. Another one was found 1 meter of the original floor. What does this tell us?
That Siricus most probably fled from the city once the volcano in the North of the city exploded. As the molten lava coming from the cone first went on the western side of the mountain, covering up in a matter of minutes the city of Herculaneum, people in Pompeii had enough time to flee. A big part of the population managed to get out also with the help of the Roman fleet, directed by Plinius the Old. The ones that stayed behind were either stubborn people that didn’t want to accept that they will have to abandon their belongings or slaves, ordered to guard the aristocrats’ houses.
The fact that there were skeletons found both on the original ground but also 4 meters higher, shows that some there were also people that came later, either to search for their houses or to plunder and were surprised, most probably, by a late gas cloud. In fact, the majority of victims found in the complex shown that they died by asphyxiation. Plinius the Old, the commander of the Roman navy, also lost his life during the first night when the first wave of gases attacked.
The fact that we know so much about the way that people in Pompeii found their end is due to the fact that one of the first archaeologists digging here had a brilliant idea. As they were digging up the city, they could fin skeletons, either on the level of the original pavement, or a little bit higher (Vesuvius brought down about 10 meters of ash that later solidified into volcanic rock) and around the skeleton, empty cavities, where the flesh and blood was. The fact that the volcano rained for months ashes, made the dead bodies be engulfed inside the rock and later decompose inside, leaving cavities around the bones. So this archaeologist decided that once close to the original ground, they would stop digging and instead start hammering easily around the rock and listen. If it sounded hollow, they would drill a hole and insert liquid gypsum.
That’s how the famous gypsum casts of Pompeii came to life. That’s how we know they height of Romans, both women and men. That’s how we know how they died, by asphyxiation, as they were found on the ground, on the streets, in different painful positions, as they struggled for the last breath. Dogs too.
I didn’t photograph the casts that I’ve seen there. I consider it a sign of respect not doing it. And besides, there are a lot of better pictures on the web. Important for me is to know what happened there, to contemplate that great Roman city that is still standing, that is still alive by the grace of our society.
Pompeii has still so much to teach us. There still is something like 40% unexcavated and next years will bring news about the findings there.
Pompeii seems like more than a history lesson. I consider this city the lesson of how a calamity is, in fact, a blessing in the long run. Humans, individually, are here to come and go. Each one of us. Yes, a volcano can be a scary thing and can bring down so much destruction and pain. At the same time, a volcano means rich soil, rich areas, fertile land and great landscapes. It is a life driving force and as much as it would destroy, it most definitely creates more. It is like a small Universe, always recycling material, enriching it with energy so it can drive the formation of other power structures that in turn, bring energy and why not, life, to other smaller formations.
Don’t EVER hesitate to visit Pompeii. It is a life lesson.