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Pompeii, Italy
Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii is a ruined and partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples and Caserta in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Along with Herculaneum, its sister city, Pompeii was destroyed, and completely buried, during a long catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning two days in AD 79.

Pompeii was a lively place, and evidence abounds of literally the smallest details of everyday life. For example, on the floor of one of the houses (Sirico's), a famous inscription Salve, lucru (Welcome, money), perhaps humorously intended, shows us a trading company owned by two partners, Sirico and Nummianus (but this could be a nickname, since nummus means coin, money). In other houses, details abound concerning professions and categories, such as for the 'laundry' workers (Fullones). Wine jars have been found bearing what is apparently the world's earliest known marketing pun, Vesuvinum (combining Vesuvius and the Latin for wine, vinum). Graffiti carved on the walls shows us real street Latin (Vulgar Latin, a different dialect than the literary or classical Latin).

In 89 BC, after the final occupation of the city by Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Pompeii was finally annexed to the Roman Republic. During this period, Pompeii underwent a vast process of infrastructural development, most of which was built during the Augustan period. Worth noting are an amphitheatre, a Palaestra with a central natatorium or swimming pool, and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses (domus) and businesses. The amphitheatre has been cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design particularly in the area of crowd control. The aqueduct branched out through three main pipes from the Castellum Aquae, where the waters were collected before being distributed to the city; although it did much more than distribute the waters, it did so with the prerequisite that in the case of extreme drought, the water supply would first fail to reach the public baths (the least vital service), then private houses and businesses, and when there would be no water flow at all, the system would then at last fail to supply the public fountains (the most vital service) in the streets of Pompeii.

The volcano collapsed higher roof-lines and buried Pompeii under many meters of ash and pumice, and it was lost for nearly 1700 years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire. Today, it is both one of the most popular tourist attractions of Italy, with 2,571,725 visitors in 2007, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ruins of Pompeii are situated at coordinates 40°45′00″N 14°29′10″E / 40.75, 14.48611, near the modern suburban town of Pompeii. It stands on a spur formed by a lava flow to the north of the mouth of the Sarno River (known in ancient times as the Sarnus). Today it is some distance inland, but in ancient times it would have been nearer to the coast.

The archaeological digs at the site extend to the street level of the 79 volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from the volcano and other seismic events before then. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava bedrock that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Using carbon dating, the oldest layer has been dated to the 8th-6th centuries BC, about the time that the city was founded. The other two layers are separated from the other layers by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement and were laid in the 4th century BC and 2nd century BC. The theory behind the layers of jumbled sediment is large landslides, perhaps triggered by extended rainfall.

The town was founded around the 7th-6th century BC by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. According to Strabo, Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and in fact recent excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th century necropolis. Pompeii was captured a first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, between 525 and 474 BC.

The large number of well-preserved frescoes throw a great light on everyday life and have been a major advance in art history of the ancient world, with the innovation of the Pompeian Styles (First/Second/Third Style). Some aspects of the culture were distinctly erotic, including phallic worship. A large collection of erotic votive objects and frescoes were found at Pompeii. Many were removed and kept until recently in a secret collection at the University of Naples.

At the time of the eruption, the town could have had some 20,000 inhabitants, and was located in an area in which Romans had their holiday villas. Prof. William Abbott explains, 'At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations.' It is the only ancient town of which the whole topographic structure is known precisely as it was, with no later modifications or additions. It was not distributed on a regular plan as we are used to seeing in Roman towns, due to the difficult terrain. But its streets are straight and laid out in a grid, in the purest Roman tradition; they are laid with polygonal stones, and have houses and shops on both sides of the street. It followed its decumanus and its cardo, centered on the forum.

Besides the forum, many other services were found: the Macellum (great food market), the Pistrinum (mill), the Thermopolium (sort of bar that served cold and hot beverages), and cauponae (small restaurants). An amphitheatre and two theatres have been found, along with a palaestra or gymnasium. A hotel (of 1,000 square metres) was found a short distance from the town; it is now nicknamed the 'Grand Hotel Murecine'. In 2002 another important discovery at the mouth of the Sarno River revealed that the port also was populated and that people lived in palafittes, within a system of channels that suggested a likeness to Venice to some scientists. These studies are just beginning to produce results.

The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to twelve different layers of soil. Pliny the Younger provides a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum, in a version which was written 25 years after the event. The experience must have been etched on his memory given the trauma of the occasion, and the loss of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, with whom he had a close relationship. His uncle lost his life while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As Admiral of the fleet, he had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts. Volcanologists have recognised the importance of Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption by calling similar events 'Plinian'.

The eruption was documented by contemporary historians and is universally accepted as having started on August 24, 79, based on one version of Pliny's letter. However the archeological excavations of Pompeii suggest that it was buried 2 months later; this is supported by another version of the letter. People buried in the ash appear to be wearing warmer clothing than the light summer clothes that would be expected in August. The fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October, and conversely the summer fruit that would have been typical of August was already being sold in dried, or conserved form. Wine fermenting jars had been sealed over, and this would have happened around the end of October. The coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include a commemorative coin that should have been minted at the end of September. So far there is no definitive theory as to why there should be such an apparent discrepancy.

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