These words describe the ancient city of Pompeii. It's the largest continually excavated archeological site in the world and an amazing site to see.
We visited these ruins on our recent trip to the Amalfi coast joining several hundred others that day. The site annually draws millions of visitors. It's become one of Italy's most popular attractions to tour.
That's oddly macabre considering the devastation caused by the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius on the city and its residents. Ongoing excavations have uncovered well-preserved buildings. Pompeii provides a backward look of a thriving and, for its time, very sophisticated Roman City—the main reason for its popularity.
Our group tour, led by Anna, explored a relatively small part of this nearly 165-acre site of which, an estimated 109 acres have been excavated to date. There's some 2 miles of city walls and seven entrance gates to the city as well as main streets that crisscrossed the city. You could sense a solemness tredding on cobblestone streets walked on by Romans long ago.
The large port city of Pompeii was located in southern Italy (Campania region) near the coast of the Bay of Naples. While Pompeii is known for its Roman ruins, unlike other towns in Campania, it was founded for the most part by Greek colonists who erected the earliest buildings.
Pompeii was built approximately 130 feet above sea level ironically on a coastal lava plateau created by earlier eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Over time, it passed from Etruscans to Greeks to Samnites and eventually into Roman control. Early settlements date to the Eighth century BC when the Oscans, a people of central Italy, founded five villages in the area. The root of the word Pompeii is thought to be an Oscan word, pompe, for the number five.
|There are always a lot of others touring Pompeii|
By the turn of the first century AD, Pompeii, five miles from Mount Vesuvius, was a flourishing resort for distinguished Roman citizens. The city was impressive featuring elegant homes and villas filled with exquisite frescoes and sculptures; fountains lined the paved streets. Many structures were built with white ground-marble stucco. The city’s wealth derived from its rich volcanic soil and the region was a growing center for olives, grapes and other crops. Wine from Pompeii was enjoyed in some of Rome’s most fashionable houses.
When Did Mount Vesuvius Erupt?
According to historians, Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, destroying a number of ancient Roman cities, including Pompeii and Herculaneum. Well-publicized recent discoveries have suggested that the volcano may have erupted in October.
Archeologists believe that residents of Pompeii didn't know that Mount Vesuvius was a volcano that would cause their eventual demise. The volcano had been dormant for over 800 years. Romans living in the area considered it an ordinary mountain.
|View of Mount Vesuvius from within Pompeii|
Regardless of whatever month it erupted, the result was the same, Mount Vesuvius sent a mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and rocks 12 miles into the sky. Winds blew the cloud south toward the city. The ash settled on Pompeii like a heavy snow collapsing roofs and floors, but leaving walls intact. Most of the city's residents fled and sought shelter; some escaped to the South on foot, others fled to the West by sea. Most stayed along the southern Italian coast and resettled in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli
The next morning a fast-moving current of hot gas and volcanic matter buried the city under 30 feet of ash dealing a fatal blow to those who remained. Pompeii was completely submerged by a flow of lava.
More Destruction in WW II
In the fall of 1943, part of Operation Avalanche was to liberate southern Italy. Allied forces sought to dislodge German soldiers and disrupt resupply routes. As a result, important targeted roads, railways, bridges, and overpasses were located near Pompeii. Some of Pompeii's most famous monuments, including its museum, were accidentally damaged by American and British fighters. After the war, many were rebuilt. Ironically, the publicized collapse of some buildings years ago did not involve the original structures, but post-WW II rebuilds.
How Many Died?
Estimates are that between 10 to 12,000 people were living in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The death toll has been placed at 2,000 (13% of the population). By all accounts, residents who stayed died in one of several ways. Toxic gases issuing from the volcano suffocated those who were downwind. Falling rocks and other debris caused homes to collapse, crushing inhabitants. The cloud of toxic gases and ash sweeping through the city would have killed people with its heat and ferocity alone. Some victims were frozen in suspended action.
After the eruption, people in nearby towns tried to locate Pompeii. Since it was a major port, they searched near the sea. However, the eruption had pushed the coastline out, filling in the harbor and Pompeii was now inland. Its location would remain hidden for over 1,500 years.
Forget about rebuilding the city, its damage was too great after it was buried in over 14 feet of ash. That same ash that sealed the city's fate has ensured its preservation. Everything remains where it was at the time of the disaster. Pompeii was stopped in time, preserved for centuries.
Historians and archeologists found more than crumbling buildings in the excavation of Pompeii, unearthing the lives of residents who favored art and color. Mosaics, frescoes and wooden panels found in the ruins decorated homes and many of these can be clearly seen today.
|A thermopolium was the Roman equivalent of a snack bar|
|Original paved street in Pompeii that's best walked in comfortable shoes|
There was a lot of buildings in Pompeii: homes, shops, temples, taverns, a pottery, baths, arena, public latrines, market hall, schools, water towers, flower nursery, basilica, bars, amphitheater, forum, theaters, temples. There were many bakeries attested to by baked bread excavated from many of these. As a port city, there were also brothels, restaurants, and entertainment venues.
|Greek mythology figures depicted on an external wall|
|Members of our travel group and tour guide inside a Pompeii villa|
Like other ancient civilizations, the Romans had many myths and legends. Mythology was a popular themes used for aesthetic and decorative purposes. It turned houses into status symbols for the wealthy who would commission grand wall frescoes.
The typical entrance of these residences was a small street doorway with a corridor that opened out into a large columned atrium where a rectangular pool of water open to the sky.
|Original floor in another Pompeii villa|
|Wall frescoes in private homes survived after 2,000+ years|
It was amazing to see details remaining in these frescoes after 2,000 years.The red color came from a pigment, cinnabar, commonly used in cities throughout Ancient Rome. Researchers have found the type used in Pompeii was unique in that it was ground finer then mixed with liquid to produce a more brilliant shade of red, a colorful testament to ancient artists.
Brothels Were Popular . . .
According to our guide and other sources, good times were enjoyed by ancient Romans who were known to have enjoyed entertainments and communal pleasures. The city was a popular vacation spot for high-class citizens. During its long-standing excavation, archeologists have uncovered over two dozen brothels.
Extravagances took the form of food, fashion and prostitutes. Prostitution was allowed socially and legally. The ruins of Pompeii revealed many buildings believed to have been brothels due to often erotic artwork on the walls. The imagery is thought to have represented a menu of services or instruction manuals for inexperienced visitors. Visiting brothels was believed to have been a popular activity for ancient Romans.
And Might Have Delayed Discovery
The brothels and related frescoes are thought to be a reason why Pompeii took so long to be fully discovered. In 1599, Domenico Fontana, an Italian architect was designing a new flow path for the Sarno River when he discovered the ruins. Surprisingly, he covered them up again.
Unproven theories are that Fontana found some of the erotic frescoes, which would have been shocking at the time, and performed a form of archaeological censorship. This view is supported by excavators who suspected that sites they were working on had been discovered earlier.
|Ruins in the large open Forum area; WW II caused more damage here|
Archeologists unearthed perfectly formed shapes of human bodies, which indicated where they had died. In 1860, Pompeii’s director of excavations Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a way to bring them back to life by creating plaster casts out of the voids left by the decay of organic materials in the hardened ash and pumice. Fiorelli found voids in the volcanic ash layers that contained human remains and filled them with plaster to create body forms (death casts) of Pompeii citizens during their final moments, a technique still in use. Pompeii is still being excavated, but new casts are not being made as the plaster damages the fragile remains of the corpses. (Several existing casts were on display, but I opted not to take photos.)
|Our tour group and guide|
Given the site's popularity, there's never a best time to go; there's always crowds. Exploring the city involves walking on uneven stone roads. There's limited shade on sunny days, and rainy days can turn the site very muddy.
|Us in Pompeii on a very warm day|
Unfortunately, Pompeii wasn’t the only city destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Also destroyed in 79 AD were the cities of Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabia.
Herculaneum, a vibrant city at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius, was an economic rival of Pompeii. Excavations have revealed the town had villas, luxurious baths and marble work; many wealthy Romans had second homes here.
Because of its smaller size, Herculaneum is considered easier to explore than Pompeii and usually has fewer crowds. It's definitely on our to see list if we return to this part of Italy. There's so much more to explore.