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.
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.