A visit to Pompeii

The ruins of Pompeii offer an unrivalled look at everyday life in a small Roman city of the first century AD.

Josho Brouwers

Of all the ancient Roman sites, perhaps none will give you a better idea of what everyday life must have been like in the (early) Roman Empire than Pompeii. Located near the city of Naples, Pompeii got buried by a thick layer of ash and pumice following an eruption of the nearby volcano Mount Vesuvius on 24 August AD 79, preserving much of the city for future archaeologists.

Archaeological interest in the site dates back to at least the late sixteenth century, when digging in the area revealed remains of the ancient city. Large-scale excavation at the site didn’t start until the eighteenth century, however, during the reign of Charles III, who became king of Naples and Sicily in 1735. The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum made at that time reignited interest in the ancient world. Inspired by these discoveries, the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768) laid the foundation for our modern understanding of ancient art.

In ancient times, Pompeii was located closer to the coast than it is today, thanks to receding sea levels and other changes in the landscape. It was home to a population in excess of 10,000 souls, many of whom had apparently fled before Vesuvius erupted, no doubt scared by the earthquakes and ominous clouds that precipitated its eruption.

While the modern site has been excavated down to the street level of ca. AD 79, investigations have shown that archaeological evidence at the site dates back to the eighth to sixth centuries BC, around the time the city was originally founded by the Oscans. Many of the structures in Pompeii were erected well before the eruption, such as the temple of Apollo, which dates back to the second century BC.

Many structures in Pompeii are preserved up to a considerable height, with the wealthy townhouses in the city giving a good impression of what Roman homes must have been like. In many instances, many of the decorations on the walls have been preserved, though a large number of frescoes have been moved to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Among the famous floor mosaics is one that reads Cave canem, “Beware of the dog”, which strikes a very modern chord.

Perhaps the best-known feature of Pompeii are the plaster casts made of those unfortunates who remained in the city when Vesuvius exploded. These casts were made by filling the voids left by the deceased in the ash and pumice with plaster, leaving a ghostly, three-dimensional image of the dead behind. Nowadays, such casts are made using transparent materials so that the bones remains visible.

Among the best-preserved structures is the partially reconstructed Lupanar, a Roman word meaning “wolf den”, used as a kind of euphemism for a brothel. It is located on the streets that carry the modern names of Vico del Lupanare and Vico del Balcone. There are various small rooms in this building with stone beds that were once covered with mattresses and pillows, with erotic frescoes decorating the walls. Supposedly, clients could use the painted scenes as inspiration to decide what kinds of sexual acts to engage in.

Some other public structures have also been well relatively preserved, such as a small theatre and a few bath houses. Located further away from the site’s main entrance is the larger amphitheatre, set in a green area of the site, flanked by a palaestra or wrestling ground. Unfortunately, conservation efforts at the site have in the past been hampered by various factors, most notably involvement from the local Camorra (mob), leading to money being diverted away from the site. In 2010, for example, the gladiator school in Pompeii collapsed as a result of neglect.

At present, though, efforts are underway to help preserve Pompeii for the future. Located relatively closely to Naples, the site can be easily reached by train or, if you have one at your disposal, by car. It’s often worth doing a day trip in which you combine a visit to Pompeii with, for example, Herculaneum and the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis.

Pompeii and the related archaeological sites have their own website.