Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples, in the Campania region of Italy, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC by the Osci or Oscans. It came under the domination of Rome in the 4th century BC, and was conquered and became a Roman colony in 80 BC after it joined an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman Republic. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was estimated at 11,000 people, and the city had a complex water system, an amphitheatre, gymnasium, and a port.
The eruption destroyed the city, killing its inhabitants and burying it under tons of ash. Evidence for the destruction originally came from a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from a distance and described the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who tried to rescue citizens. The site was lost for about 1,500 years until its initial rediscovery in 1599 and broader rediscovery almost 150 years later by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. The objects that lay beneath the city have been preserved for centuries because of the lack of air and moisture. These artefacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana. During the excavation, plaster was used to fill in the voids in the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed archaeologists to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.
Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. Today it has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors every year.
Pompeii (pronounced [pɔmˈpɛjjiː]) in Latin is a second declension plural (Pompeiī, -ōrum). According to Theodor Kraus, “The root of the word Pompeii would appear to be the Oscan word for the number five, pompe, which suggests that either the community consisted of five hamlets or, perhaps, it was settled by a family group (gens Pompeia).”
The ruins of Pompeii are located near the modern suburban town of Pompei (nowadays written with one ‘i’).
It stands on a spur formed by a lava flow to the north of the mouth of the Sarno River (known in ancient times as the Sarnus).
Today it is some distance inland, but in ancient times was nearer to the coast. Pompeii is about 8 km (5.0 mi) away from Mount Vesuvius. It covered a total of 64 to 67 hectares (170 acres) and was home to approximately 11,000 to 11,500 people on the basis of household counts. It was a major city in the region of Campania.
The archaeological digs at the site extend to the street level of the AD 79 volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from other seismic events before the eruption. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Carbon dating has placed the oldest of these layers from the 8th–6th centuries BC (around the time the city was founded). The other two strata are separated either by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement, and were laid in the 4th century BC and 2nd century BC. It is theorized that the layers of the jumbled sediment were created by large landslides, perhaps triggered by extended rainfall.
The town was founded around the 7th-6th century BC by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. According to Strabo, Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and in fact recent excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th-century BC necropolis. Pompeii was captured for the first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, between 525 and 474 BC.
In the 5th century BC, the Samnites conquered it (and all the other towns of Campania); the new rulers imposed their architecture and enlarged the town. After the Samnite Wars (4th century BC), Pompeii was forced to accept the status of socium of Rome, maintaining, however, linguistic and administrative autonomy. In the 4th century BC, it was fortified. Pompeii remained faithful to Rome during the Second Punic War.
The present Temple of Apollo was built in the 2nd century BC as the city’s most important religious structure.
Pompeii took part in the war that the towns of Campania initiated against Rome, but in 89 BC it was besieged by Sulla. Although the battle-hardened troops of the Social League, headed by Lucius Cluentius, helped in resisting the Romans, in 80 BC Pompeii was forced to surrender after the conquest of Nola, culminating in many of Sulla’s veterans’ being given land and property, while many of those who went against Rome were ousted from their homes. It became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. The town became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way.
It was fed with water by a spur from Aqua Augusta (Naples) built c. 20 BC by Agrippa; the main line supplied several other large towns, and finally the naval base at Misenum. The castellum in Pompeii is well preserved, and includes many details of the distribution network and its controls.
First Century A.D.
The excavated city offers a snapshot of Roman life in the 1st century, frozen at the moment it was buried on 24 August AD 79. The forum, the baths, many houses, and some out-of-town villas like the Villa of the Mysteries remain well preserved.
Details of everyday life are preserved. For example, on the floor of one of the houses (Sirico’s), a famous inscription Salve, lucru (“Welcome, profit”) indicates a trading company owned by two partners, Sirico and Nummianus (but this could be a nickname, since nummus means “coin; money”). Other houses provide details concerning professions and categories, such as for the “laundry” workers (Fullones). Wine jars have been found bearing what is apparently the world’s earliest known marketing pun (technically a blend), Vesuvinum (combining Vesuvius and the Latin for wine, vinum).
The numerous graffiti carved on the walls and inside rooms provides a wealth of information regarding Vulgar Latin, the form of Latin spoken colloquially rather than the literary language of the classical writers.
In 89 BC, after the final occupation of the city by Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Pompeii was finally annexed by the Roman Republic. During this period, Pompeii underwent a vast process of infrastructural development, most of which was built during the Augustan period. These include an amphitheatre, a palaestra with a central natatorium (cella natatoriua) or swimming pool and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses (domūs) and businesses. The amphitheatre has been cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design, particularly in the area of crowd control.
The aqueduct branched through three main pipes from the Castellum Aquae, where the waters were collected before being distributed to the city. In extreme drought, the water supply would first fail to reach the public baths (the least vital service), then private houses and businesses—and if there were no water flow at all, the system would fail to supply the public fountains (the most vital service) in the streets of Pompeii. The pools in Pompeii were mostly for decoration.
The large number of well-preserved frescoes provide information on everyday life and have been a major advance in art history of the ancient world, with the innovation of the Pompeian Styles (First/Second/Third Style). Some aspects of the culture were distinctly erotic, including frequent use of the phallus as apotropaion or good-luck charm in various types of decoration. A large collection of erotic votive objects and frescoes were found at Pompeii. Many were removed and kept until recently in a secret collection at the University of Naples.
At the time of the eruption, the town may have had some 11,000 inhabitants, and was located in an area where Romans had holiday villas. William Abbott explains, “At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations.” It is the only ancient town of which the whole topographic structure is known precisely as it was, with no later modifications or additions. Due to the difficult terrain, it was not distributed on a regular plan as most Roman towns were, but its streets are straight and laid out in a grid in the Roman tradition. They are laid with polygonal stones, and have houses and shops on both sides of the street. It followed its decumanus (main east/west road) and its cardo (main north/south road), centered on the forum.
Modern archaeologists have excavated garden sites and urban domains to reveal the agricultural staples in Pompeii’s economy prior to 79 A.D. Pompeii was fortunate to have a fruitful, fertile region of soil for harvesting a variety of crops. The soils surrounding Mount Vesuvius even preceding its eruption have been revealed to have good water-holding capabilities, implying access to productive agriculture. The Tyrrhenian Sea’s airflow provided hydration to the soil despite the hot, dry climate.
The rural areas surrounding Pompeii had abundant agricultural land that was very fertile and could produce much larger quantities of goods than the city needed. Some speculate that much of the flat land in Campania, surrounding the areas of Pompeii was dedicated to grain and wheat production. Cereal, barley, wheat, and millet were all produced by the locals in Pompeii. These grains, along with wine and olive oil, were produced in abundance for export to other regions.
Evidence of wine imported nationally from Pompeii in its most prosperous years can be found from recovered artifacts such as wine bottles in Rome. For this reason, vineyards were of utmost importance to Pompeii’s economy. Agricultural policymaker Columella suggested that each vineyard in Rome produced a quota of three cullei of wine per jugerum, otherwise the vineyard would be uprooted. The nutrient-rich lands near Pompeii were extremely efficient at this and were often able to exceed these requirements by a steep margin, therefore providing the incentive for local wineries to establish themselves. While wine was exported for Pompeii’s economy, the majority of the other agricultural goods were likely produced in quantities relevant to the city’s consumption.
Remains of large formations of constructed wineries were found in Forum Boarium, covered by cemented casts from the eruption of Vesuvius. It is speculated that these historical vineyards are strikingly similar in structure to the modern day vineyards across Italy. Water depressions have also been found in close proximity to the wineries and served as water wells for the produce and livestock.
Carbonized food plant remains, roots, seeds and pollens, have been found from gardens in Pompeii, Herculaneum and from the Roman villa at Torre Annunziata. They revealed that emmer wheat, Italian millet, common millet, walnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, hazel nuts, chickpeas, bitter vetch, broad beans, olives, figs, pears, onions, garlic, peaches, carob, grapes, and dates were consumed. All except the dates could have been produced locally.
Besides the forum, many other services were found: the Macellum (great food market), the Pistrinum (mill), the Thermopolium (sort of bar that served cold and hot beverages), and cauponae (small restaurants).
An amphitheatre and two theatres have been found, along with a palaestra or gymnasium. A hotel (of 1,000 square metres) was found a short distance from the town; it is now nicknamed the “Grand Hotel Murecine”. Geothermal energy supplied channeled district heating for baths and houses. At least one building, the Lupanar, was dedicated to prostitution.
In 2002, another discovery at the mouth of the Sarno River near Sarno revealed that the port also was populated and that people lived in palafittes (stilt-houses), within a system of channels that suggested a likeness to Venice to some scientists.
The inhabitants of Pompeii had long been used to minor quaking (indeed, the writer Pliny the Younger wrote that earth tremors “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania”), but on 5 February 62, a severe earthquake did considerable damage around the bay, and particularly to Pompeii. It is believed that the earthquake would have registered between about 5 and 6 on the Richter magnitude scale.
On that day in Pompeii, there were to be two sacrifices, as it was the anniversary of Augustus being named “Father of the Nation” and also a feast day to honour the guardian spirits of the city. Chaos followed the earthquake. Fires, caused by oil lamps that had fallen during the quake, added to the panic. Nearby cities of Herculaneum and Nuceria were also affected.
Temples, houses, bridges, and roads were destroyed. It is believed that almost all buildings in the city of Pompeii were affected. In the days after the earthquake, anarchy ruled the city, where theft and starvation plagued the survivors. In the time between 62 and the eruption in 79, some rebuilding was done, but some of the damage had still not been repaired at the time of the eruption. Although it is unknown how many, a considerable number of inhabitants moved to other cities within the Roman Empire while others remained and rebuilt.
An important field of current research concerns structures that were being restored at the time of the eruption (presumably damaged during the earthquake of 62). Some of the older, damaged paintings could have been covered with newer ones, and modern instruments are being used to catch a glimpse of the long hidden frescoes. The probable reason why these structures were still being repaired around seventeen years after the earthquake was the increasing frequency of smaller quakes that led up to the eruption.
Eruption of Vesuvius
By the 1st century AD, Pompeii was one of a number of towns near the base of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The area had a substantial population, which had grown prosperous from the region’s renowned agricultural fertility. Many of Pompeii’s neighboring communities, most famously Herculaneum, also suffered damage or destruction during the 79 eruption. The eruption occurred on 24 August AD 79, just one day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire, including that from volcanoes.
A multidisciplinary volcanological and bio-anthropological study of the eruption products and victims, merged with numerical simulations and experiments, indicates that at Vesuvius and surrounding towns heat was the main cause of death of people, previously believed to have died by ash suffocation. The results of the study, published in 2010, show that exposure to at least 250 °C (482 °F) hot surges (known as pyroclastic flows) at a distance of 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings.
The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to twelve different layers of tephra, in total 25 meters deep, which rained down for about six hours. Pliny the Younger provided a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum, in a version he wrote 25 years after the event. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, with whom he had a close relationship, died while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts. Volcanologists have recognised the importance of Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption by calling similar events “Plinian“.
The eruption was documented by contemporary historians and is generally accepted as having started on 24 August 79, relying on one version of the text of Pliny’s letter. However the archeological excavations of Pompeii suggest that the city was buried about three months later. This is supported by another version of the letter, which gives the date of the eruption as November 23.
People buried in the ash appear to have been wearing heavier clothing than the light summer clothes typical of August. The fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October – and conversely the summer fruit typical of August was already being sold in dried, or conserved form. Wine fermenting jars had been sealed, which would have happened around the end of October. Coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include one with a fifteenth imperatorial acclamation among the emperor‘s titles. These coins could not have been minted before the second week of September. There is no definitive theory as to why there should be such an apparent discrepancy.
After thick layers of ash covered the two towns, they were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. The first time any part of them was unearthed was in 1599, when the digging of an underground channel to divert the river Sarno ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. The architect Domenico Fontana was called in; he unearthed a few more frescoes, then covered them over again, and nothing more came of the discovery. A wall inscription had mentioned a decurio Pompeii (“the town councillor of Pompeii”) but its reference to the long-forgotten Roman city was missed.
Fontana’s covering over the paintings has been seen both as censorship—in view of the frequent sexual content of such paintings—and as a broad-minded act of preservation for later times, as he would have known that paintings of the hedonistic kind later found in some Pompeian villas were not considered in good taste in the climate of the counter-reformation.
Herculaneum was properly rediscovered in 1738 by workmen digging for the foundations of a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. Pompeii was rediscovered as the result of intentional excavations in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. These towns have since been excavated to reveal many intact buildings and wall paintings. Charles of Bourbon took great interest in the findings even after becoming king of Spain because the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural power of Naples.
Karl Weber directed the first real excavations; he was followed in 1764 by military engineer Franscisco la Vega. Franscisco la Vega was succeeded by his brother, Pietro, in 1804. During the French occupation Pietro worked with Christophe Saliceti.
Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1863. During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realized these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable, and does not destroy the bones, allowing further analysis.
The discovery of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum left the archaeologists with a dilemma – between the mores of sexuality in ancient Rome and in Counter-Reformation Europe lay a clash of cultures. An unknown number of discoveries were hidden away again. A wall fresco depicting Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster. An older reproduction was locked away “out of prudishness” and opened only on request—and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall.
A large number of artifacts from the buried cities are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. In 1819, when King Francis visited the Pompeii exhibition there with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a so-called “secret cabinet” (gabinetto segreto), a gallery within the museum accessible only to “people of mature age and respected morals”. Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the Naples “Secret Museum” was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still allowed entry only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
Pompeii has been a popular tourist destination for over 250 years; it was on the Grand Tour. By 2008, it was attracting almost 2.6 million visitors per year, making it one of the most popular tourist sites in Italy. It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. To combat problems associated with tourism, the governing body for Pompeii, the Soprintendenza Archaeological di Pompei have begun issuing new tickets that allow for tourists to also visit cities such as Herculaneum and Stabiae as well as the Villa Poppaea, to encourage visitors to see these sites and reduce pressure on Pompeii.
A paved street. Pedestrians used the blocks in the road to cross the street without having to step onto the road, which doubled up as Pompeii’s drainage and sewage disposal system. The spaces between the blocks let vehicles pass along the road.
Excavations in the site have generally ceased due to the moratorium imposed by the superintendent of the site, Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. Additionally, the site is generally less accessible to tourists, with less than a third of all buildings open in the 1960s being available for public viewing today. Nevertheless, the sections of the ancient city open to the public are extensive, and tourists can spend several days exploring the whole site.
In Popular Culture
Pompeii was the setting for the British comedy television series Up Pompeii! and the movie of the series. Pompeii also featured in the second episode of the fourth season of revived BBC drama series Doctor Who, named The Fires of Pompeii, which featured Caecilius as a character.
In 1971, the rock band Pink Floyd recorded the live concert film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, performing six songs in the ancient Roman amphitheatre in the city. The audience consisted only of the film’s production crew and some local children.
Objects buried beneath Pompeii were well-preserved for almost two thousand years. The lack of air and moisture let objects remain underground with little to no deterioration. Once excavated, the site provided a wealth of source material and evidence for analysis, giving detail into the lives of the Pompeiians. However, once exposed, Pompeii has been subject to both natural and man-made forces, which have rapidly increased deterioration.
Weathering, erosion, light exposure, water damage, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction, introduced plants and animals, tourism, vandalism and theft have all damaged the site in some way. Two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but the remnants of the city are rapidly deteriorating.
The concern for conservation has continually troubled archaeologists. The ancient city was included in the 1996 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund, and again in 1998 and in 2000. In 1996 the organization claimed that Pompeii “desperately need[ed] repair” and called for the drafting of a general plan of restoration and interpretation. The organization supported conservation at Pompeii with funding from American Express and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
Today, funding is mostly directed into conservation of the site; however, due to the expanse of Pompeii and the scale of the problems, this is inadequate in halting the slow decay of the materials. An estimated US$335 million is needed for all necessary work on Pompeii. A recent study has recommended an improved strategy for interpretation and presentation of the site as a cost-effective method of improving its conservation and preservation in the short term.
June 2013 UNESCO declared: If restoration and preservation works “fail to deliver substantial progress in the next two years,” Pompeii could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
House of the Gladiators collapse
The 2,000-year-old Schola Armatorum (House of the Gladiators) collapsed on 6 November 2010. The structure was not open to visitors, but the outside was visible to tourists. There was no immediate determination as to what caused the building to collapse, although reports suggested water infiltration following heavy rains might have been responsible. There has been fierce controversy after the collapse, with accusations of neglect.
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