Up in smoke: Pompeii

The excavated site of the Roman town of Pompeii is the most popular tourist site in Italy. Preserved by a thick layer of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, it's an archaeological snapshot of a Roman town.

Up in smoke: Pompeii

History Facts

Where: Pompeii, near Naples, Italy
When: 7th Century BC, destroyed in 1st Century AD
History: Catastrophy as city is destroyed by volcano and preserved in time by the ash
Go there for: Pre-Roman Italy history of remarakable preservation

The excavated site of the Roman town of Pompeii is the most popular tourist site in Italy. Preserved by a thick layer of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, it’s an archaeological snapshot of a Roman town.

What’s the history here?

Pompeii was founded in the 7th century BC by the Campain Oscans, but was soon conquered by the Greeks, and later, in the 5th century BC, by the Samnites. It became a Roman colony in 80 BC, an until 24th August AD79, Pompeii was a bustling port and trading town at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius with a population of 20,000. In AD62 many of buildings were damaged by a huge earthquake, and the archaeological excavations have revealed that even 17 years later they were still repairing the damage from this earlier disaster.

The eruption of Vesuvius spelled catastrophe Pompeii and its residents. Fiery ash and pumice stone covered the entire town stopping life in its tracks and preserving a piece of history under the crust. It’s estimated that about 2000 people died, many of whom were suffocated by acrid clouds of sulphur as they tried to escape. Buildings and people were buried under a thick layer of volcanic rubble. The terrifying experience of the disaster is recorded in the letters of Pliny the Younger who, along with his uncle who perished in the tragedy, was trying to evacuate the area.

“We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, no the dark of a moonless or cloudy night but as if the light had been put out in a closed room. You could here the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. There were people too who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them’.

‘A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be the warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight….’

‘At last the darkness thinned and dispersed like smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shone out, but yellowish as it is during an eclipse. We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts.’

Pliny the Younger, Letter VI, XX

The Emporer Titus considered rebuilding Pompeii towards the end of the first century AD, but no work was carried out in earnest. It wasn’t until 1784, in the time of Charles of Bourbon who had an interest in archaeological treasures, that substantial excavation was initiated. Credit for the major discoveries is due to Guiseppe Fiorelli, an archaeologist whose work was supported by the Italian government.

What’s there to see and do?

– Pompeii is best visited as a day trip from Naples, as there’s nothing in the modern town that merits an overnight stay. That said, you’ll need at least four hours to wander the streets at leisure, exploring the temples, theatre and houses where people lived until disaster struck:

– The centre of political, religious and commercial life in a Roman town was the Forum. You can see the remains of the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Vespasian,the public buildings which housed the principal magistrates, the Sanctuary of the Lares Publici (the gods which were meant to protect the town), the Macellum or food market and warehouses.

– Gladiatorial games were held at the large amphitheatre close to the entrance of the site, complete with barracks to house the gladiators. Two greek-style theatres close to the forum would have been used for the performance of plays, poetry readings, mine and musical recitals.

– The many complex streets, laid out on a grid plan, are lined with houses large and small. The most impressive are the House of the Tragic Poet, the Villa of the Mysteries, House of the Vettii and the House of the Dioscuri. Beautiful frescoes, mosaics and statues were preserved, as well as the bodies of former inhabitants who were struck down by lava as they tried to flee, encased in volcanic stone.

n- The main shopping street was the Via Dell’ Abbondanza, with a number of commercial premises and the Thermopolium with Lararium, rather like a modern bar. There was also a bakery, public baths, and even a brothel in ancient Pompeii.



The Collected Letters of Pliny the Younger are a fascinating insight into the life and times of the Roman Empire in the first century AD.

main image: Temple of Venus in Pompeii by Wknight94
By Jess Halliday

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