A Visit to Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time

Mt. Vesuvius rises behind the ruins of Pompeii's forum. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018)

On August 24th, 79 AD, the volcano Vesuvius erupted along the west coast of what we now call Italy. Among the casualties of that event was the middle-class port town of Pompeii. In the course of a few days, the city went from a bustling metropolis to a time-capsule of ancient Roman life, buried under dozens of feet of volcanic ash, and not seen again until modern times.

The naturalist, Pliny the Elder, was an official of the Roman Court and in charge of the Fleet in the Bay of Naples during the eruption in August of 79 AD. He had a house across the bay from Pompeii with an excellent view of the mountain. According to an account by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, "my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it."

The Pompeii Theater (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018)

It soon became apparent that this phenomena was causing great destruction to settlements near the mountain. Pliny the Elder ordered his fleet across the bay to try to assist those fleeing the eruption. He himself would die during this rescue mission.

In the city of Pompeii, 5 miles south of the mountain, most people abandoned their homes and fled the city as ash and thick dust began to blanket the streets and buildings. This was wise, because what would happen next would bring all life in the town to an end.

At some point a number of hours into the eruption, a mass of superheated poisonous gas vomited out of the volcano and rushed down the mountain engulfing Pompeii, and its sister city of Herculaneum in 482 F (250 C) vapors that caused instant death to the estimated 2,000 people still in the city.

The volcano continued to spew ash, eventually covering the city's buildings and the dead inside them. When the volcano finally settled down. no trace of the town was left and the city of Pompeii was eventually forgotten.

Rediscovery

The victims, killed instantly by a wave of superheated air, were covered by ash and when their bodies decayed a void was created. Fiorelli figured how to fill the void with plaster in the position the victims were in when they died. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018).

During 1599, some of the remains were found during the excavation of a tunnel to divert water from river Sarno, but major work didn't get underway until 1748 when Spanish military engineer, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, started excavations following Spain's regaining control over the region a few years earlier. The King of Spain, Charles of Bourbon (who also ruled the nearby city of Naples), found the archeological discoveries of great interest. Since that time Pompeii has been slowly excavated, with about two thirds of the site exposed at the current time.

Giuseppe Fiorelli, who took charge of the excavations in 1863, made one of the most macabre discoveries about the city. He kept finding voids in the ash, and inside those voids, human bones. He finally determined that this is where victims of the superheated air had died and their remains had been covered with ash. As their bodies decayed over time, the space became empty. He decided by injecting wet plaster of Paris into the spaces, he could capture the positions of the people as they expired.

Pompeii Today

A visitor entering the main gate (closest to the Circumvesuviana metro stop) at the site climbs up a long Roman road from the ticket booths until he enters the town's forum. The forum, which was a large central square in the center of the city, was the heart of the town and contained an open air market surrounded by public buildings such as the temple of Jupiter and the equivalent of a city hall.

Surrounding the forum were streets in a grid pattern running in every direction to the outlying sections of the city. Paved with large stone blocks, the streets were designed to be flushed with water so they could also serve as the city's drainage and waste disposal system. Large stepping stones were placed at each intersection, allowing the town's citizens to cross the street without getting their feet wet. Spaces between the blocks allowed chariots and other wheeled vehicles to move down the street unimpeded. Visitors can still see ruts in the roads where the blocks have been worn down by countless, ancient vehicles rolling over them.

This counter top was the front of a ancient "fast food" shop. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018).

This reminds visitors that the city was well established at the time of its destruction. Pompeii had been founded nearly 700 years previous to Vesuvius destroying it. As you explore the remains, it is evident that the people who lived there were more like us than we might think. Scattered along the streets of the site are the remains of "fast food joints." These buildings are easily recognized by the waist-high, marble counter-tops with circular holes in them meant to contain cooking pots. Many of the citizens of ancient Pompeii couldn't cook in their small apartments, but used these convenient places to pick up a meal.

Running Water and Baths

As many modern cities have running water, so did Pompeii. At the time of the eruption, an aquaduct brought water into the city and it was then distributed via a set of lead pipes. About ten percent of the houses had water delivered directly to them, while the rest of the water went to public fountains where citizens could get water for their homes. The public baths consumed a significant amount of the water supply, too.

Ruts made by Roman chariots and wagons can still be seen in the streets. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018).

The public baths were an important social spot in any Roman city and Pompeii was no exception. The baths were located just off the forum and included locker rooms for undressing, pools and a sauna. The sauna was cleverly heated by hot air from fires channeled around the room through double walls and a false floor. Water from a pool created steam in the room.

A number of private houses have also been preserved in the city. Many follow a standard rectangular, design usually with no external windows, but an open courtyard inside that gave the rooms around the edges light. Water from the roofs were channeled into a pool, or mpluvium, in the center of the courtyard. Rooms around the colonnade surrounding the courtyard were usually bedrooms, while toward the back of the courtyard, furthest away from the street, was a dining room. In the back, some houses included a garden. If the owner was a merchant, there might also be rooms for meetings or workshops.

The city also contained an impressive theater and a stadium capable of seating nearly 20,000 people.

Even today Vesuvius dominates the horizon, though much of the mountain was blown off in the eruption. While clearly visible from the city, Pompeii is not located at the base. The mountain is five miles away, a testament to the power of the volcano to destroy the city even at that distance.

In fact, Vesuvius and the Phlegrean Fields, an ancient supervolcano just beyond the densely populated city of Naples, continue to make the area of Pompeii seismically active and potentially dangerous. Ironically, a future eruption may someday bury the city again under a blanket of ash and it will, perhaps forever this time, disappear from history.

The city's stadium. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2018).

Copyright Lee Krystek 2018. All Rights Reserved.