Pompeii, Italy

Since learning about Pompeii at school, I have always been absolutely fascinated by the story and its always been massively on the top of my ‘to go’ list. Pompeii is about a 30 minute train from Naples so the perfect day trip! I found Pompeii absolutely fascinating, more so than I expected – I just wish we had had more time to explore!

Ever since the ancient Greeks settled in the area in the 8th century B.C., the region around Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples attracted wealthy vacationers who wanted to soak up the sun and the scenery. By the turn of the first century A.D., the town of Pompeii, located about five miles from the mountain, was a flourishing resort for Rome’s most distinguished citizens. Elegant houses and elaborate villas lined the paved streets. Tourists, townspeople and slaves bustled in and out of small factories and artisans’ shops, taverns and cafes, and brothels and bathhouses. People gathered in the 20,000-seat arena and lounged in the open-air squares and marketplaces. On the eve of that fateful eruption in 79 A.D., scholars estimate that there were about 20,000 people living in Pompeii and the surrounding region.

On 24 August 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted. The towns people had no knowledge of volcanos and simply had no idea of what was going on in front of their eyes. The blast sent a plume of ash, pumice, rocks, and scorching-hot volcanic gases so high into the sky that people could see it for hundreds of miles around. (The writer Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from across the bay, compared this “cloud of unusual size and appearance” to a pine tree that “rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches”; today, geologists refer to this type of volcano as a “Plinean eruption.”) The column of ash was said to be 12 miles in height – that’s twice the size of Mount Everest!

As it cooled, unable to support its own weight, the tower of debris drifted to earth: first the fine-grained ash, then the lightweight chunks of pumice and other rocks. It was terrifying–“I believed I was perishing with the world,” Pliny wrote, “and the world with me”–but not yet lethal: Most Pompeiians had plenty of time to flee.

For those who stayed behind, however, conditions soon grew worse. As more and more ash fell, it clogged the air, making it difficult to breathe. Buildings collapsed. Then, a “pyroclastic surge”–a 100-miles-per-hour surge of superheated (up to 1300 degrees f) poison gas and pulverized rock–poured down the side of the mountain and swallowed everything and everyone in its path. Killing people instantly.

By the time the Vesuvius eruption sputtered to an end the next day, Pompeii was buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash and about 2,000 people were dead. The city was completely written off the map until 1748 when it was re-discovered by a surveying engineer. Underneath the ash, the city had pretty much been preserved, a time capsule – a place frozen in time – and therefore has given experts the most amazing amount of information about life in the Roman era.

Visiting Pompeii in the summer can apparently be a little crazy; we were told that the queue to enter can be 4 hours long and waits are to be expected to visit the most famous of the sites. Luckily for us; a Sunday in February meant that we pretty much walked straight in and were able to roam round, often feeing like we had the place to ourselves.

We decided to rent the audio guides, which on reflection we wouldn’t do again. You’re better off getting a good guide book and reading about the different spots as you go. The guides made us look like we were wandering around on our phones the entire time…!

Having walked through the main gates we started wandering around the incredible ruins. We entered through the Marina gate, the name of which derives from the fact that the exit road led to the sea. These walls, measuring 3200m long, were already in place in 6 BC! My one tip if you’re visiting – do not stay too long at the front of site! All of the good stuff is at the back, so if you can you’re probably better starting off at the back and making your way forward! It is however, pretty incredible to catch a glimpse of Mount Vesuvius looming over the city amongst your first encounters of the ancient mosaics. Little did we know the best was still to come…!

We wandered into the incredible forum; the core of daily life in the city and the focal point of all the main public buildings for city administration and justice, for business management, for trade activities such as markets as well as the main place for places of citizen worship.

Having wandered through the forum we decided to pay a visit to the Basillica; the most sumptuous building of the forum; a space used to carry out business and for the administration of justice. A richly decorated suggestum, where judges sat, elevated from everyone else, while judicial affairs were managed is located at the centre of the short western side. The space was enhanced with an equestrian statute whereas the walls were richly decorated with stucco, to give the impression of marble. The basilica is dated back to 130-120BC and is one of the oldest examples of this type of building in the entire Roman world!

Our next stop off was at the Portico of Concordia (the Building of Eumachia). This building, the most impressive on the eastern side of the Forum, was built but Eumachia, priestess of Venus belonging to a very rich family from Pompeii, in order to worship the emporer. Interestingly, the rich marble frame of the entrance, with its impressive scrolls of acanthus filled with animals, was found in the Forum and was mistakenly relocated here when actually it belonged to the adjacent Temple of Genius Augusti!

As you walk through to the building there’s a small little enclosure on the right hand side where you can clearly see where a pot used to sit. This area was used to collect urine to assist with the laundering of clothes! As you walk into the Portico, you can see a spot on the right hand side which used to house a wool market with an undercover space for market stalls and at the back of the Portico is the statute of Eumachia herself. Like a lot of the buildings in the forum, unfortunately nothing remained from the rich multi coloured marble decoration – this was all ruined after the eruption.

After the Portico, we visited the Temple of Genius Augusti (the Temple of Vespasian) which was built on the requests of Mamia. The temple included a small court yard, an alter and a small temple with four columns accessible from both sides. The temple adopted the same architectural design as the adjacent Portico as indicated by the marble decoration of the façade; the base of which now can only be seen alongside the renewed alter;  it’s intricate depiction of a bull being brought for slaughter. The temple was being renovated at the time of the eruption.

Following on from the Temple, we crossed the Forum and caught our first glimpse of the famous Pomepeii victim casts, within the Forum Granary, which was originally used as a fruit and vegetable market for the city. Today the Granary forms one of the most important archaeological inventories in the city and has more than 9000 artefacts from the excavations in Pompeii and its territory since the 19th century. The Granary preserves terracotta crockery that was used in the last decades of the city for everyday activities, such as pots and pans for cooking, jugs and bottles, and amphorae; large containers used to transport oil, wine and fish sauce throughout the Mediterranean.

Obviously what I found most fascinating in the Granary was the clay casts of the victims; frozen literally in the position of their deaths. These casts really are haunting; people imprisoned in Ash; a slave, a man covering his face, a dog, and a small child – seeing this really does bring the disaster into reality.

After visiting the Granary we decided it was a good time to stop of for a bite of lunch and a coffee. I think it’s safe to say Pompeii does not quite hold the Neapolitan standard for pizza…!

After lunch, we made our way back out to the ancient cobbles for a wander. Something that is so striking on the ancient roads is the tracks where the horse and carriages would have used to ridden through. There are also big stone pillars in the middle of the road which would allow people to cross the street without stepping on the dirt of the road below.

Our next stop was at the Lupanare – the most fascinating place in Pompeii for me! The word ‘lupanar’ translates as ‘wolf den’. That’s right – we were visiting an ancient Roman brothel, home to the prostitutes of the day – the ‘lupa’ – ‘she wolves’). The prostitutes in the brother were mostly greek and Oriental slaves who were paid between two and eight Asses (a glass of wine cost one Ass) for their services. The building has two floors; the homes of the owner and the slaves were at the top and there are five rooms at the bottoms, all fitted with a built in, stone bed on which a mattress was placed, on either side of the corridor that connects the two entrances of the ground floor. The rooms were closed by a curtain and there is a latrine at the end of the corridor at the base of the staircase. Most interesting are the paintings, still so well preserved, with erotic deptictions of the central  corridor informing customers of the activities that took place; a menu some might say… If you look really closely on the walls of the brothel you will also see ancient hand written graffiti from the punters.

Examples of graffiti from the Lupanar include:

  • Hic ego puellas multas futui(“Here I f***** many girls”).
  • Felix bene futuis(“Lucky guy, you f*** well,” a prostitute’s blandishment to her client, or “Lucky guy, you get a good f***”). One particular gentleman had brandished into the wall the fact that he had contracted a particular STI within the premises – graffitt’; the ancient trip advisor…of sorts…

Heading out of the brothel, we wandered down the cobbled streets making our way across to the Terme Stabiane – the Stabian Baths. The main entrance on via dell’Abbondanza leads to  a large courtyard which was used for recreation.

The original pool is found to the left and the colonnade on the right. As you walk into the collanade; you first enter into the men’s quarters which are still so well preserved with a beautiful ceiling and incredible murals on the wall. You first see the frigidarium (the cold baths) which you could really imagine in operations with its domed ceiling and benches circling around the pool. As you enter into the main area; you walk into the apodyterium (the dressing room). I found this room particularly impressive with the benches around the edge and the shelves for the bathers to put their belongings in – Roman lockers!

The next room in the baths houses the tepidarium (medium baths) and then the calidarium (hot baths). The heating was guaranteed by a piping system in the walls and double floors that circulated the hot air coming from the furnances – it was so interesting to see!

The woman’s quarters, close to the men’s quarters, were split in the same ways however had no rich decoration. Separation of the sexes was normal practice in the ancient world and women entered through a separate door on which ‘Mulier’ (woman) was written. The Stabian baths, which date back to the 2nd century BC are among the oldest known in the Roman world!

After the baths we made our way across to the Casa di Casca Longus –  the House of Casca Longus which dates back to 2nd century BC. This house is lavishly decorated with high level paintings which depict theatrical scenes inspired by the tragedies of Menander. The whole environment of the house is very elegant; the impluuium bath is covered in coloured marble and the compluumium which drains the ranwater is decorated with pictorial terracotta water spouts. On one side of the impluuium there us a characteristic table held by three marble supports with lion-paw shaped feet that bear the name of the original owner ‘Publius Servilius Casca Long(us) one of the conspirators who killed Caesar in 44BC – MIND BLOWN. The funny part of this house is that the lion table is so well preserved that we were all literally like ‘that must be a replica’ – nope; original and so SO interesting!

Next up was the Fullonica di Stephanus (the Fullery of Stephanus). This production facility, designed for the washing of dirty laundry and degreasing fabric that had just been threaded was built in the last stage of the life of the city, transforming the structure from an original house to an atrium. A large bath was placed at the centre of the atrium and a skylight was installed to use the upper part of the terrace to dry the laundry. The collaborators of the laundry, almost all slaves, had to tread on fabrics and clothes for hours, placed under a liquid containing human and animal urine which was collected in pots placed along the street.

When excavators exposed the fullery, a skeleton was found near the entrance which bore a hoard of coins. Based on the electoral inscriptions it is supposed that Stephanus was the owner of the fullery and died during the eruption, while trying to escape with the latest collections.

As we exited the laundry we wandered down the street winding streets. Something that completely baffled us all was the way that the original shop sign paintings were still so visible painted on the bricks – not only could you read the lettering, you could also see the brush strokes – again, MIND BLOWN.

Next up we visited the Casa di Paquius Proculus. This house dates back to the Samnite period (2nd Century BC) as indicated by the cubic capitals at the entrance where the mosaic floor depicting a chained dog crouched in front of the door is preserved. The house is attributed to Publius Paquius Proculus or, according to others, Caius Cuspuis Pansa, both mentioned in the several electoral posters painted on the façade.

From here, we wandered down and popped into the Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus. The Thermopolium represents social mobility in Pomepeii in Roman times, where merchants and craftsmen also held a high social status, reserved only to landowners in older times. Drinks and hot food were served in this place, as the name indicates, stored in large jars placed in the richly decorated masonry counter of the tavern. The newsstand on the back of the wall is of great interest ; extremely well maintained, it consists of a lararium dedicated to the protectors of the household (Lari), the Genius protector of the owner, as well the god of trade (Mercury) and the god of wine (Dionysus).  The house is at the rear, interconnected with the shop, decorated with precious frescoes and a triclinium for outdoor dining.

Interestingly, a hoard of nearly 3kg (6.6lbs) of coins was found in one of the large clay jars placed on the counter, probably the last collections of the host, thereby attesting the profitable activity of the tavern.

Next up we visited the Casa di Octavius Quartio – an example of a lavish dwelling used by the Pompeiian elite just before the eruption. The house looks like a miniature version of the grand aristocratic villas scattered in the countryside outside the city.

The entrance area partly preserves the original layout with a traditional atrium; whereas the garden extends on two areas located at different heights and are characterised by two artificial waterways (euripi) perpendicular to each other, animated by waterfalls and fountains. The references to Egypt and to the goddess Isis found on the wall decorations, in the several marble statues and also in the architecture of the garden are particularly interesting. Two rooms face the two ends of the upper euripus, a small room on the west which appears to be a bed on the east for outdoor dining (biclinio) and a niche that acts as a cave decorated with frescoes of mythical themes. The artist is a certain Lucius who affixed his own signature.

We very nearly missed our next stop off as it didn’t look like much from the outside… it was so lucky we ended up popping in anyhow – it was definitely one of the most amazing places we visited in Pompeii – The House of Venus in the shell.

This house was built in the 1st century BC and belonged to the branch of the family of Satrii , who were very prominent in the last years of the city.  A beautiful garden acts its focal point around which there are various frescoed rooms. The back wall of the peristylium is decorated with the great and spectacular fresco of Venus, which gives the house its name. On the lower part, a luxurious garden is depicted over a barrier with exotic plants and animals .The upper part of the wall is divided into three panels with different scenes, to the right a fountain that birds drink from; to the left a statue of Mars with a spear and shield. In the centre, two cherubs accompany Venus, protectress of Pompeii and the erotic sphere, lying in a large shell.

Having spent some time in awe at the house of Venus, we wandered down towards the incredible Amphitheatre, which is the oldest among those known in the Roman world, dating back to 70BC. External staircases with two flights provide access to the upper steps and a downward corridor provides access to the lower steps. The arena is separated from the area intended for the spectators by a parapet and has fresco paintings of gladiators; the upper part has inscriptions that are still legible with the names of the magistrates who had the steps built.

The amphitheatre could hold up to 20,000 spectators; those from Pompeii and other neighbouring towns. In 59 AD the cheering of the audience led to a bloody brawl between the people from Pompeii and those from Nocera. As a result of these riots, the Senate of Rome decided to close the arena in Pompeii for ten years, however, this measure was withdrawn in 62 AD when a disastrous earthquake struck the city.

Opposite the amphitheatre lies the large Palaestra, consisting of a large open air square, approximately 140 x 14m, surrounded by porticoes and enclosed within a high wall of which there are 10 doors. The palaestra was built in the Augustan period, at the beginning of the 1st century AD and was intended for the physical and intellectual training of the cities’ youngsters. Across the walls you can still find examples of erotic poetry left as graffiti on the palaestra walls.

During the excavation of the lost city, many victims were found during the excavation who had looked for a refuge or a way to escape through the building in vain.

The Palestra houses a permanent exhibition which displays many of the findings from the excavation of the city. I think this was one of the most interesting things that I had witnessed all day! Literally everything from garlic cloves to leather sandals, chickpeas to dried dates had been perfectly preserved in the eruption. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that I was staring at a whole loaf of Roman bread that was still perfectly intact… albeit a tad charred! Mind Blown.

Having left the Palestra, we popped into a little house called Casa del Larario Fiorito which had the most incredible well preserved painting on the walls – it was stunning.

The next stop off for us what the Garden of the Fugatives. This area, once taken up by homes, had been transformed into a vineyard in the years preceding the eruption and was used for outdoor banquets, covered by a pergola. 13 victims, adults and children, were found at various points within the enclosure, seized by death whole trying to run out the Nocera Gate, running above a layer of pumice stones that had already reached a 3.5 metres. The casts are displayed at the back of the garden which was so incredible to see. You can literally see facial features and everything which is quite hard to get your head around.

On our way out of Pompeii we stopped off at the visitor’s centre, which is an absolute MUST! In here they had various casts of victims, jewellery, coins, and even pots with volcanic ash fused to the sides.

One of the funniest parts in this exhibit was the whole cabinet full of apology letters to the Board of Cultural Heritage at Pompeii. These sneaky visitors had decided to steal pieces of rock from Pompeii, however had got scared of the so called ‘Pompeii curse’ and decided to return the rocks!

Pompeii was literally fascinating, I couldn’t recommend visiting this spot more. So So interesting! My only tip for travelling there is if you go buy train watch your belongings – we witnessed 3 separate incidents of people trying to pickpocket….!

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