Pompeii was one of the most significant cities of the Roman Empire, located on the Mediterranean coast of modern day Italy, and on the site of present day Naples. It was one of the most vibrant and prosperous cities in the Mediterranean, a trade, commercial and cultural hub for the Ancient World. Archaeological evidence reveals that the city was first settled in the eighth century BCE, and it was soon home to a vibrant and thriving society. In 79 CE, Pompeii was buried and destroyed when the nearby volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted, plunging the city into darkness, but preserving it in time as one of the richest archaeological sites in the world.
At the heart of the archeological site and in the centre of the city lies the incredible network of structures, roads, homes and public buildings that made up the ancient city of Pompeii. The city was built on a triangular-shaped plateau of volcanic ash and rock, roughly 500 metres elevation and surrounded by three steep, rocky hills. Pompeii was situated at the secret of the Sarno River and was encircled by a wall six meters high, three kilometres long and complete with towers and gates.
It is evident that the focal point of the city was the quintessential Roman Forum, home to numerous temples, government offices and an open air market for traders. The forum was the political and commercial epicentre of the city and was surrounded by shops and businesses that were supplied by an expansive network of potters, farmers and artisans. Away from the forum, the streets were laid out in a hugely complex network of pathways, often with cobbled roads and thoroughfares large enough to allow two carts to pass each other.
Evidence of extensive development of the city is further observed through the archaeological finds in one of the luxurious houses around the Forum, called the Casa della Fortuna (House of Fortune). Discovered in the 1900s, the property was richly decorated with statues and fine wall paintings, providing an intimate insight into the custom and culture of the ancient Roman world.
Further to this, recent discoveries have unveiled the hardworking nature of Ancient Pompeii with the impressive maintenance of the city’s sewer systems and aqueducts. This intricate infrastructure system demonstrated an advanced and complex knowledge of hydraulics, with public water taps and public toilets being used alongside the traditional sewage systems.
It is clear that the city of Pompeii was an exceptionally advanced society for its time. While much of the urban infrastructure and buildings survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the ash and darkness of the apocalyptic event forever entombed a snapshot in time of one of the most influential cities in the Classical world.
The Aftermath of the Eruption
Pompeii remained covered under four to six meters of ash and stone until it was rediscovered in 1748, hidden in exquisite detail beneath the surface. The catastrophe of 79 CE had left the buildings largely intact, but the mud and debris of the volcanic eruption had suffocated the civilians of the city. In total, 16,000 inhabitants had lost their lives due to the disaster, with most of the corpses found in their homes and streets, trapped in their final moments.
The remains of human bodies were revealed through a plaster casts technique, which involved pouring a form of liquid plaster over the hollow mould left behind by the perished body. This grisly technique was developed by Giuseppe Fiorelli, a pioneering archaeologist and director of the excavation site. The excavation revealed a superior level of detail, providing an enhanced insight into the lifestyles of the ancient Roman city.
Archaeological evidence suggests that when the volcano erupted on 24 August, the ashfall led to an immediate pumice cloud, quickly descending upon the city and leading to instant death for many civilians. At the centre of the quake was a pyroclastic flow of hot ash, racing towards Pompeii at an astonishing 360 km/h, rising to 12 metres and totally engulfing the city. This further reveals the deadly nature of Mount Vesuvius, and just how devastating a natural disaster can be.
Sadly, very few of the citizens of the city were able to escape the tragic night, although some had the time to flee before the pumice cloud descended and sealed it off. Two thousand years later, the city remains buried beneath the heavy volcanic stone, almost completely intact and frozen in time by the eruption of the biblical mountain.
Preservation and Tourism
Buried for centuries, the ancient city of Pompeii re-emerged from volcanic hibernation in the mid-18th century and enthusiasts were filled with the enthusiasm and keenness to excavate and celebrate the city’s unique place in history. From 1784-1799, the area was excavated, with King Charles of Naples playing a crucial role in the preservation and showcasing of the discoveries. Utilising the funding provided by the king, archaeologists uncovered sites such as the Roman Forum, and conducted vital restoration work on existing temples and significant buildings.
Since the rediscovery of Pompeii, the city has become a major tourist destination, with close to three million visitors every year. Through guided tours and the ongoing restoration of many sites, visitors are given an incredible opportunity to experience the lifestyle of the Roman world and get a fascinating glimpse into some of the most crucial moments of history.
Pompeii also remains a significant site for modern day scientific research, and for archaeological exploration. The ruins, artefacts, mummified bodies and buildings provide a wealth of context and information, as researchers continue to make new and exciting discoveries from the city that was forgotten for centuries.
The vast majority of experts remain in awe of the extraordinary accomplishment of the city, given its relaxed and verdant setting on the Gulf of Naples. Although its story ended in devastation, Pompeii remains a remarkable city – one that had an astonishing impact on the classical world and continues to captivate millions of visitors every year.
Modern Day Implications
The story of Pompeii demonstrates the incredible power of nature and the catastrophic nature of a disaster. The citizens of the city were unaware of the imminent danger, and disaster planners and scientists have used this catastrophic occurrence as the inspiration and determination of formulating modern day disaster strategies and city emergency plans. In brief, ‘Pompeii is a lesson in disaster – it is a great example of the consequences of not being prepared for a potential event.
It is also a reminder of the fragility of our existence, and how we are capable of leaving profound legacies, even after our lives have come to an end. The inhabitants of the city were able to create a distinct culture and lifestyle, with a lively atmosphere and architectural wonders that continue to shine today. But, in the wake of the horror of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was able to teach us valuable lessons and become an incredible point of historical reference. The city continues to be a subject of wonder and continues to captivate the world and stimulate adoration and appreciation.
Exploring the Ruins
Nowadays, the ruins and structures of Pompeii remain as a memorial to the city and are protected by UNESCO and various public and private bodies. In November 2019, the archaeological site was reopened to the public, and large scale reconstruction and restoration projects are now being undertaken in the memory of the city, in order to ensure the utmost respect and honour shown to the remains. Visiting Pompeii, you can expect a unique feeling of exploration and discovery — visitors are able to explore the city in depth, learning about the customs and culture of the people who made it alive over two thousand years ago.
From the towering sculptures of Ancient Greek Gods at the Forum, to the vibrant and still vibrant street markets that echoed with the cries of traders and merchants, the city is teeming with historical insight and information on the lives of its former citizens. The city has become an incredible symbol of how ancient civilizations leave legacies – reminders of their greatness and tests of the power of mother nature.
The Influence of Pompeii
The influence of Pompeii is also reflected in our current society, with museums displaying unearthed artifacts and various artwork inspired by the city of the past. Contextualized within the art world, Pompeii has been an inspiration to many artists, sculptors and musicians throughout the years, using the city’s unique history as a source of creativity and motivation.
The city was also an inspiration to romantic authors, who used its tragic history in stories such as the 2007 British film Pompeii which explored notions of human tragedy and resilience. These works often capture the various scenes of devastation and explain the deep emotions that awaited when Mount Vesuvius erupted, or when the city was re-discovered by modern day archaeologists.
The catastrophic event of 79 CE remains one of the most famous natural disasters of all time, but its significance is further amplified through the incredible preservation of the city – something which endures with us to this day.
Preservation of Culture
Pompeii was decidedly a powerful and influential city, and its legacy demonstrates just how powerful and significant culture has been throughout antiquity and continues to influence our lives today. The city is a reminder of the importance of cultural preservation, and how the actions of a city in the Ancient world can still connect with humans today.
In a sense, it is a reminder of human achievement and how people from different eras and ages can get a glimpse of the beauty, complexity and magnificence of the people who came before us. The impact of the tragedy of 79 A.D is devastating, but the lasting implications of the city’s existence – the architectures, sculptures and remains – demonstrate the beauty of our civilisation, and how resilience and determination can prevail even in the wake of disaster.
Pompeii is an iconic symbol of human history, culture, and resilience, and its ruins continue to captivate and admire scholars and tourists alike.