A somewhat relaxed morning as not a few of the hostel guests had partied into the wee hours. I happened to be the night of the gay pride festival. To give you an idea of the scope of the revelries, one of the guys in the hostel was overheard telling another employee that he had recognized one of the guys in the dorm bed as a guest…but not the other one! Such is life in the hostel.
The plan made the night before with some new friends was to take the metro to the main rail station. From there a local train would take us to Pompeii where we would climb Mt. Vesuvius then explore the ruins of Pompeii. Alas…the best laid plans of mice and men…off time go astray….
Pompeii (/pɒmˈpeɪ(i)/, Latin: [pɔmˈpeːjjiː]) was an ancient Roman city near modern Naples in the Campania region of Italy, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area (e.g. at Boscoreale, Stabiae), was buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Volcanic ash typically buried inhabitants who did not escape the lethal effects of the earthquake and eruption.
Largely preserved under the ash, the excavated city offers a unique snapshot of Roman life, frozen at the moment it was buried and providing an extraordinarily detailed insight into the everyday life of its inhabitants. Organic remains, including wooden objects and human bodies, were entombed in the ash and decayed away, making natural molds; and excavators used these to make plaster casts, unique and often gruesome figures from the last minutes of the catastrophe. The numerous graffiticarved on the walls and inside rooms provides a wealth of examples of the largely lost Vulgar Latin spoken colloquially, contrasting with the formal language of the classical writers.
We had planned to first go up to the top of Mount Vesuvius before venturing into the excavated city of Pompeii. Originally the climb up to the top seemed like a good idea. When we arrived around noon we were told the last bus up to the top was about to leave. Once there it was another 45 minutes up to the very top by hiking. Tickets were 10 Euro each. Looking at the hill we decided it would be a better use of our time here to take the bus to get near the top instead. We paid our fare and hopped on the bus. The road to the top was winding and provided some good views. Once there, about a half hour journey, we were told that we could get off and hike to the top…but…due to some visiting dignitary that all the buses must depart now. Huh? What? We still had a walk to the top to do. They said you could get off and walk to the top but there would be no bus back down the mountain as they had to leave now. A couple of people did get off. We were actually more interested in seeing the excavations then the view from the top so we opted to stay on the bus and try to get our money refunded at the bottom. They surely knew of this before they sold us the tickets. We expected to have to argue with the tour operators for the refund. As it happened they had a stack of ten Euro bills and were passing them out in exchange for the ticket. All in all it wasn’t such a bad deal. Though we had not gotten to get the view from the very top, we did go up the mountain and get a fair view for free.
The excavations were an easy walk from the train station. After buying our tickets we were able to enter the city. Indeed, it is an entire city which has been excavated. Amazing. The original frescoes and paintings were still on some walls. This excavation has been going on for a long time.
Eruption of Vesuvius
Main article: Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79
By the 1st century AD, Pompeii was one of a number of towns near the base of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The area had a substantial population, which had grown prosperous from the region’s renowned agricultural fertility. Many of Pompeii’s neighbouring communities, most famously Herculaneum, also suffered damage or destruction during the 79 eruption.
A multidisciplinary volcanological and bio-anthropological study of the eruption products and victims, merged with numerical simulations and experiments, indicates that at Pompeii and surrounding towns heat was the main cause of death of people, previously believed to have died by ash suffocation. The results of the study, published in 2010, show that exposure to at least 250 °C (482 °F) hot surges (known as pyroclastic flows) at a distance of 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings. The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to 12 different layers of tephra, in total 25 metres (82.0 ft) deep, which rained down for about six hours.
Pliny the Younger provided a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum but written 25 years after the event. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, with whom he had a close relationship, died while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder 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“. It had long been thought that the eruption was an August event based on one version of the letter but another version gives a date of the eruption as late as 23 November. A later date is consistent with a charcoal inscription at the site, discovered in 2018, which includes the date of 17 October and which must have been recently written.
Further support for an October/November eruption is found in the fact that people buried in the ash appear to have been wearing heavier clothing than the light summer clothes typical of August. The fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October – and conversely the summer fruit typical of August was already being sold in dried, or conserved form. Wine fermenting jars had been sealed, which would have happened around the end of October. Coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include one with a 15th imperatorial acclamation among the emperor‘s titles. These coins could not have been minted before the second week of September.
Beginning in 1757, the eight volumes of Le Antichità di Ercolanobrought knowledge of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the fore.
“Garden of the Fugitives”. Plaster casts of victims still in situ; many casts are in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Roman fresco from the Villa dei Misteri
Fresco from the Casa del Centenario bedroom
Soon after the burial of the city, some survivors or thieves came to salvage valuables, including marble statues from buildings. They left traces of their passage, as in a house where modern archaeologists found a wall graffitus saying “House dug”. During the following centuries, its name and location were forgotten. The earliest any part was unearthed was in 1592, when the digging of an underground channel to divert the river Sarno ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. The architect Domenico Fontana was called in; he unearthed a few more frescoes, then covered them over again, and nothing more came of the discovery. A wall inscription had mentioned a decurio Pompeii (“the town councillor of Pompeii”) but its reference to the long-forgotten Roman city was missed.
Fontana’s covering over the paintings has been seen both as a broad-minded act of preservation for later times, and as censorship of the hedonistic sexual wall images, which he would have known would scandalize counter-reformation Italy.
Herculaneum was properly rediscovered in 1738 by workmen digging for the foundations of a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. The Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre then undertook excavations to find further remains, discovering Pompeii in 1748. Charles of Bourbon took great interest in the findings, even after leaving to become king of Spain, because the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural prestige of Naples.
Karl Weber directed the first serious excavations; he was followed in 1764 by military engineer Franscisco la Vega. Franscisco la Vega was succeeded by his brother, Pietro, in 1804. During the French occupation Pietro worked with Christophe Saliceti.
Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1863. During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realised these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable, and does not destroy the bones, allowing further analysis.
The discovery of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum left the archaeologists with a dilemma stemming from the clash of culturesbetween the mores of sexuality in ancient Rome and in Counter-Reformation Europe. An unknown number of discoveries were hidden away again. A wall fresco depicting Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster. An older reproduction was locked away “out of prudishness” and opened only on request—and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall. In 2018, an ancient fresco depicting an erotic scene of “Leda and the Swan” was discovered at Pompeii.
A large number of artefacts from the buried cities are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. In 1819, when King Francis visited the Pompeii exhibition there with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a so-called “secret cabinet” (gabinetto segreto), a gallery within the museum accessible only to “people of mature age and respected morals”. Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the Naples “Secret Museum” was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still allowed entry only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
During the 150 year period of excavation a large city has been unearthed. It is really quite an amazing place to visit. One finds oneself transported back in time imagining what it must have been like to be living there prior to the eruption. One thing that gave an insight into how it must have been a very smelly existence was the stepping stones in the streets. Large stones consistently about 18” high were to be found throughout the city. These stones were used to cross the streets without getting your feet soiled as the streets themselves were used as open sewers. By today’s standards it must have been very bad. Back then it was the accustomed smell and perhaps something one simply got used to. What choice did they have really? Interesting to note that up until a hundred years ago or so that people were using feral cat sent as a perfume. Things change as does society.