The other Roman town to be destroyed by Vesuvius – POMPEII – was a much larger affair than Herculaneum and one of Campania’s most important commercial centres – a moneyed resort for wealthy patricians and a trading town that exported wine and fish. In effect the eruption froze the town’s way of life as it stood at the time; indeed the excavations have probably yielded more information about the ordinary life of Roman citizens during the imperial era than anywhere else: their social conventions, class structure, domestic arrangements and (very high) standard of living. Some of the buildings are even covered with ancient graffiti, either referring to contemporary political events or simply to the romantic entanglements of the inhabitants; and the full horror of their way of death is apparent in plaster casts made from the shapes their bodies left in the volcanic ash – with faces tortured with agony, or shielding themselves from the dust and ashes.
Vesuvius had been spouting smoke and ash for several days before the eruption on 24 August, 79 AD. Fortunately most of Pompeii had already been evacuated when disaster struck: out of a total population of 20,000 it’s thought that only 2000 actually perished, asphyxiated by the toxic fumes of the volcanic debris, their homes buried in several metres of volcanic ash and pumice. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, was one of the casualties – he died at nearby Stabiae (now Castellammare) of a heart attack. But his nephew, Pliny the Younger, described the full horror of the scene in two vivid letters to the historian Tacitus, who was compiling a history of the disaster, writing that the sky turned dark like “a room when it is shut up, and the lamp put out”.
The first parts of ancient Pompeii were discovered in 1600, but it wasn’t until 1748 that excavations began, continuing more or less without interruption until the present day. Indeed, exciting discoveries are still being made. A privately funded excavation some years ago revealed a covered heated swimming pool, whose erotic wall paintings have been deemed by the Vatican to be unsuitable for children. And, in a further development, a luxury “hotel” complex was uncovered in 2000 during the widening of a motorway, slabs of stacked cut marble suggesting it was still under construction when Vesuvius erupted. Recently, a flood of new funds is being used to excavate a further twenty hectares of the site; it is hoped to resolve whether or not the survivors attempted, vainly, to resettle Pompeii after the eruption.
The site covers a wide area, and seeing it properly takes half a day at the very least; really you should devote most of a day to it and take plenty of breaks – unlike Herculaneum there’s little shade, and the distances involved are quite large: flat, comfortable shoes are a must.
All of this makes Pompeii sound a bit of a chore – which it certainly isn’t. But there is a lot to see, and you should be reasonably selective: many of the streets aren’t lined by much more than foundations, and after a while one ruin begins to look much like another. Again, many of the most interesting structures are kept locked and only opened when a large group forms or a tip is handed over to one of the many custodians. It’s worth studying the site map, which you’ll find at every entrance – pins on the map indicate which areas are currently closed, as the site is in continuous restoration. To be sure of seeing as much as possible you could take a tour, although one of the pleasures of Pompeii is to escape the hordes and absorb the strangely still quality of the town, which, despite the large number of visitors, it is quite possible to do.
The western sector: from the Forum to the House of the Vettii
Entering the site from the Pompeii-Villa dei Misteri side, through the Porta Marina, the Forum is the first real feature of significance, a long, slim, open space surrounded by the ruins of what would have been some of the town’s most important official buildings – a basilica, temples to Apollo and Jupiter, and a market hall. Walking north from here, up the so-called Via di Mercurio, takes you towards some of the town’s more luxurious houses. On the left, the House of the Tragic Poet (Casa del Poetica Tragico) is named for its mosaics of a theatrical production and a poet inside, though the “Cave Canem” (Beware of the Dog) mosaic by the main entrance is more eye-catching. Close by, the residents of the House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) must have been a friendlier lot, its “Ave” (Welcome) mosaic outside beckoning you in to view the atrium and the copy of a tiny, bronze, dancing faun (the original is in Naples) that gives the villa its name.
On the street behind, the House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii) is one of the most delightful houses in Pompeii and one of the best maintained, a merchant villa ranged around a lovely central peristyle that gives the best possible impression of the domestic environment of the city’s upper middle classes. The first room on the right off the peristyle holds some of the best of Pompeii’s murals: the one on the left shows the young Hercules struggling with serpents. There are more paintings beyond here, through the villa’s kitchen in a small room that’s normally kept locked – erotic works showing various techniques of lovemaking together with an absurdly potent-looking statue of Priapus from which women were supposed to drink to be fertile.
The eastern sector: the Grand Theatre to the Amphitheatre
Cross over to the other side of the site for the so-called new excavations, which began in 1911 and actually uncovered some of the town’s most important quarters. The Grand Theatre, for one, is very well preserved and is still used for performances, overlooking the small, grassy, column-fringed square of the Samnite Palestra – a refectory and meeting-place for spectators from the theatre. Walk around to the far left side of the Grand Theatre, down the steps and up again, and you’re in front of the Little Theatre – a smaller, more intimate venue also still used for summer performances and with a better-kept corridor behind the stage space.Walk up from here to rejoin the Via dell’ Abbondanza, where there’s lots of interest – the Lararium has a niche with a delicate relief showing scenes from the Trojan War; the Fullonica Stephani is a well-preserved laundry, with a large tiered tub for washing; the House of the Venus in the Shell is named after the excellently preserved painting on its back wall; while next door, the House of Octavius Quartio is a gracious villa fronted by great bronze doors, with paintings of Narcissus gazing rapt at his reflection in the villa’s lovely garden, which has been replanted with vines and shrubs.
Just beyond here is the town’s Amphitheatre – one of Italy’s most intact and accessible, and also its oldest, dating from 80 BC; it once had room for a crowd of some 12,000 – well over half the town’s population. Next door, the Palestra is a vast parade ground that was used by Pompeii’s youth for sport and exercise – still with its square of swimming pool in the centre. It must have been in use when the eruption struck Pompeii, since its southeast corner was found littered with the skeletons of young men trying to flee the disaster.
Villa dei Misteri
One last place you shouldn’t miss at Pompeii is the Villa dei Misteri. This is probably the best preserved of all Pompeii’s palatial houses, an originally third-century-BC structure with a warren of rooms and courtyards that derives its name from a series of paintings in one of its larger chambers: depictions of the initiation rites of a young woman into the Dionysiac Mysteries, an outlawed cult of the early imperial era. Not much is known about the cult itself, but the paintings are marvellously clear, remarkable for the surety of their execution and the brightness of their tones and colours.