9 Mar,2017 By Jagabond
“You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle…he perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands.”
This is a quote by Pliny the Younger, his uncle was Pliny the Elder…what amazingly simple names. He wrote two letters to his friend who was a historian, documenting the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that consumed many towns and lives. I’ll be revisiting his quotes throughout this blog. Pliny witnessed his uncle leave to help the wounded, and die as a result. He escaped tragedy with his mother to have a storied career as a writer and philosopher.
Pompeii is a tourist trap but justifiably so. My mind flashed back with this incredible dose of history, and I imagined the town as it once was. Disaster wiped Pompeii from the map, but not forever…not with the genius of current archaeology. A novel method of injecting plaster into the ground resulted in the preservation of bodies as they died, which added extra emotion to this tour of a lost city.
“The cloud was rising from a mountain…Vesuvius…I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long trunk, from which spread some branches.”
Pompeii enjoyed a long period of affluence, and at the time of its demise in 79 AD had become a popular tourist spot for Romans. It had three amphitheatres for entertainment, one for music, one for plays, and the one below for gladiator shows.
Who doesn’t enjoy a nice Roman bath? The facility in Pompeii was state-of-the-art for its time. An aqueduct in nearby Avellino fed the supply through a well-constructed lead piping system. Cold water was for men only due to fertility concerns…I guess the Romans weren’t as progressive as they thought. Pompeii also can boast the earliest identified locker room.
One of the more incredible current projects is at the site of the vineyard that helped make Pompeii famous for its wine. Although Vesuvius obviously wiped it out, modern day science was able to recreate the soil composition from the time. Mastroberardino Winery, well known in this region, is now operating a working vineyard on the exact same site nearly 2000 years later.
“Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius.”
The main street in town was termed ‘Abundancy Street’ as this was the location of many markets, restaurants and bars. The homes on and nearby the street had similar floor plans, with a courtyard typically in the rear of the house.
Was this the earliest ever ‘beware of dog’ sign? That’s what the experts hypothesize.
One of the major businesses in Pompeii was laundry service, which would involve women submerging clothing in urine, then foot-stamping on it in a giant basin structure like the one shown below. I guess if everyone in town smelled like pee no one would ever notice!
A street map of Pompeii shows a city perfectly laid out in grid format. Flooding concerns necessitated the use of elevated stones for street crossing, with spacing between them to allow for chariot traffic.
“We were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us.”
The main square of Pompeii was breathtaking. Even in those times, this was where most of the mingling on non-work days took place. There was an area to ‘park’ chariots outside the square, so this may be the earliest incarnation of a car-free zone. A current exhibit by a Belgian artist depicts the ‘flawed gods’, which are a series of sculptures showing deified figures with obvious defects. The decision to mix modern art with the ruins of an ancient city is controversial. I believe that utilizing the square as it was originally intended, showcasing arts to the public, actually honors the city’s history. It was eerie to see Vesuvius looming in the background…so beautiful yet also responsible for the ruined lives.
“Let us turn out of the high road, while we still can see, for fear that should we fall in this road, we should be pressed to death in the dark by the crowds that are following us.”
The ash from Vesuvius acted as an ‘archaeological cap’ that preserved the city until its re-discovery in the 16th century. The best example of this preservation is with the various frescoes spread throughout houses and businesses. Incredibly they still maintain their colors and most of their physical integrity.
“You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men…some lifting their hands to the gods, but the greater part convinced that there were no gods at all.”
People close to death begging the gods for help…not surprising. Did the gods leave, or were they ever there? Maybe the locals figured their hedonism finally caught up with them. Pompeii was home to more than twenty brothels, and in case you didn’t know how to find one, there were interesting directional depictions on the street.
How do you see the ‘menu’ of services once arriving? They were painted on the wall, of course. The image below advertises that same sex options were available.
“At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated…the real day returned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light. Every object that presented itself to our eyes seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow.”
Hug your children, lover, and family pet. This beautiful thing we call living is not a promise, it’s a privilege. The afterlife is home to the souls left in Pompeii, and we shouldn’t rush to join them anytime soon. May God bless those lost here, and all victims of natural disaster.
How to get there: The easiest method is driving from Naples, and there are multiple parking options right nearby the archaeological site. Another option is the Circumvesuviana train line that connects Naples with Pompeii. Alternatively you could hire a number of day trip services from cities as far away as Rome, for this I recommend checking www.viator.com.
Where to stay: I preferred an overnight stay to allow for some relaxation after the hours spent sightseeing. I recommend Hotel Forum due to its proximity to the ruins, and their assistance in booking guided tours. They work with a tour guide named Josefina who was outstanding and is highly recommended.