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(PD) Photo: Central Intelligence Agency
"The forum at Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background."

Pompeii, Italy, was a Roman settlement in Campania situated where the River Sarno drains into the Bay of Naples. It is uncertain when Pompeii was founded and by whom,[1] but by the mid-6th century B.C. it occupied an area of 66 hectares (163 acres). Prior to its burial as a result of the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was a Roman colony. After Pompeii's and nearby Herculaneum's (which was also buried during the eruption) re-discovery, the two settlements have become important archaeological sites. In Roman mythology, Pompeii was founded by Hercules and may have been where the cult dedicated to the demi-god originated.[2]

The site of Pompeii was lost until the 18th century. Marble that had been worked by masons was found in the area and led to investigations that resulted in first the discovery of Herculaneum and then in in 1748 the discovery of Pompeii itself. In this first phase of rediscovery, investigations were funded by the wealthy but resulted in much damage as artworks were taken away to be displayed in the patrons' homes. Pompeii and Herculaneum gained international renown in 1762 due to the writings of Joachim Winckelmann. Despite over a century of excavations, the first rigorous archaeological excavations only began in 1860.[3]

The reason Pompeii is so well known today is not because it was exceptional in its time, but because its remarkable preservation offers archaeologists insight into the Roman way of life. In the words of A. E. Cooley and M. G. L. Cooley: "Pompeii was not a particularly significant Roman town. ... No Pompeian made his mark on Roman literature or politics. No crucial moments in Rome's history hinge on Pompeii. Yet today, because of the accident of its fate, Pompeii is a UNESCO world heritage site, attracting up to five hundred times as many visitors each year as actually used to live in the town."[4]

History of Pompeii

(PD) Map: August Mau, Pompeii: Its Life and Art, Francis Kelley, trans. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1899), 2.
A map of Campania showing the Bay of Naples, Pompeii, and Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii is located in Campania, a fertile region on the west coast of Italy. As well as being the most productive agricultural land in Italy, the region was well positioned for trade. As a result, several Greek colonies were founded in the area, the most important of which were Cumae (founded in the 8th century B.C.) and Neapolis (now known as Naples, founded in the 7th century B.C.). It is uncertain who founded Pompeii before the Greeks took over, but the historian Strabo wrote that Oscan-speaking people used to live there. Situated on the mouth of the River Sarnus, the town was a Greek trading post. The Greeks also settled at nearby Stabiae and Herculaneum.[5]

Mount Vesuvius, the volcano which destroyed Pompeii, is just 8 km from the city. The settlement is perched on a volcanic outcrop 39 meters above sea level, left over from an eruption before records began. Where the flow approaches the river it falls into a sharp drop, creating a cliff and a natural defence. Neapolis is 22 km away, and the town of Herculaneum is about midway between Neopolis and Pompeii.[6]

The derivation of the name Pompeii is uncertain and there are a number of competing theories. The Oscan word for five is pumpe, and it may indicate the Pompeii developed from a group of five villages. Alternatively it could refer to the number of ethnic groups in the town. It is also possible that Pompeii derives from Pompeius, a common Roman name.[7]

In the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. the Etruscans emerged as a leading power in Campania. They tried to conquer Greek colonies in the region and twice attacked Cumae without success. Despite the failure to take Cumae, historian Michael Grant suggests that the Etruscans may have controlled Pompeii for a while as archaeologists have recovered Etruscan inscriptions from the town.[8] With the threat from the Etruscans, town walls were built around Pompeii. They reflected Pompeii's growth from a settlement covering about 14 hectares, to 66 hectares. The walls are still visible today, though with later additions and damage from a siege in the 1st century B.C.[9] The earliest writings recovered from Pompeii were written in the Etruscan language and were found in the Temple of Apollo. The earliest date from the early 6th century.[10] Etruscan influence in Campania waned in the 5th century, and was soon replaced by that of the Samnites. In 421 B.C. the Samnites succeeded where the Etruscans had failed by capturing Cumae, and soon after other Greek colonies in Campania, including Pompeii, fell under their control.[8]

(CC [1]) Photo: Author: Greg Willis
Pompeii's amphitheatre (pictured) is located in the easternmost corner of the city. A riot in the amphitheatre in A.D. 59 led to a ban on gladiatorial games at Pompeii.

Rome in the 4th century B.C. began to establish itself as the leading power in Italy. The Romans came into conflict with the Samnites, and towards the end of the century Rome succeeded in capturing towns under Samnite control, including Pompeii which fell in 310 B.C. Within a decade the region was completely under Roman control.[11] Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. and continuing into the 2nd century B.C. Pompeii experienced a period of prosperity which is reflected in the buildings of the period. Dubbed the tufa period due to the use of tufa (a grey stone), many of the city's finest monuments were built including several temples, the theatre, the basilica, and one of the bath complexes.[12]

During the Punic Wars—fought between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.—Pompeii stayed loyal to Rome, but rebelled against her authority during the Social War in 91–87 B.C.[11] The Romans, commanded by General Sulla, captured the city in 89 B.C. after a siege. From 80 B.C., Sulla used the town as a colony for several thousand of his veterans. Latin became the dominant language in public inscriptions, replacing Oscan, and the veterans' descendants were prominent in the epigraphic record for several generations after the revolt of the early 1st century. Even at the time of the eruption in A.D. 79 the city still bore the marks of Sulla's siege. The town wall is pierced by holes where the Romans aimed their siege engines, missiles have been recovered from the site, and graffiti told defenders where to congregate if there was an attack.[13]

After Pompeii became a Roman colony in 80 B.C. (with an influx of Roman settlers including veterans of Sulla's army) the city had a generally quiet existence with some exceptions. The former soldiers were not particularly welcomed by those already living in Pompeii, and Cicero noted that there was some tension between the two groups. There was also some rivalry with nearby towns. A riot in A.D. 59 led to a ban on gladiatorial games in the town for ten years. During a gladiatorial event at the amphitheatre, Pompeians traded insults with residents of nearby Nuceria who attended the games. Events escalated until weapons were drawn and some of the Nucerians were killed or injured. The riot came to the attention of the Emperor Nero who ordered the Senate to investigate.[14] The amphitheatre was probably founded around 70 B.C., making it the earliest known stone example of this type of building.[15]

In A.D. 63, just four years after the riot, Pompeii was bestowed with the honour of being declared a colony by the Emperor Nero. This imperial favour was conferred because Nero's wife, Poppaea Sabina, was probably from the city and her family owned several properties in Pompeii.[16]

The Eruption of Vesuvius: A.D.79

(CC [2]) Photo: John Keogh
The Temple of Isis was damaged when an earthquake struck Pompeii in A.D. 62.

Strabo, who wrote in the 1st century A.D., stated that while Vesuvius appeared to be a volcano there was no record of any eruptions. There were, however, signs that the volcano was only dormant rather than extinct. Pompeii and Herculaneum were struck by an earthquake on 5 February 62, both suffering severe damage.[17] Seneca documented the destruction wrought by the earthquake which emanated from Vesuvius. It has been estimated that this event may have measured around 5 on the Richter scale. Buildings damaged at Pompeii included the Temple of Isis and the Basilica. Some people living in the region were so disconcerted by the earthquake that they moved elsewhere. This marked the beginning of a period of activity from Vesuvius, with several smaller earthquakes in the following years.[18] The earthquake was depicted in the walls paintings of a house at Pompeii belonging to Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, a local banker.[19] One such painting was located in the household shrine (lararium), suggesting the owner was giving thanks for surviving the event.[20]

On 24 August A.D. 79 Vesuvius began to erupt. It lasted until the following day.[21] The eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger is the most important documentary source for the events of that day. At the time Pliny was staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in Misenum on the north coast of the Bay of Naples. The elder Pliny was commander of the fleet at Misenum and on seeing a cloud of smoke rising from Vesuvius set out to investigate. He died on the expedition, and his nephew's account was written decades later in A.D. 106–107 (see Pliny the Younger Letters 6.16 and 6.20).[22] Cassius Dio, who wrote a century later, documented further details of the eruption.[23]

(CC [3]) Photo: Author: Greg Willis
When Vesuvius erupted, the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried. Centuries later plaster was poured into the cavities their bodies left, creating casts of their remains.

Archaeologist Umberto Pappalardo has suggested that Vesuvius may have erupted in November rather than August as recorded in Pliny the Younger's letters.[24] Using Pliny's account and the stratigraphy of the archaeological record the events of the eruption can be reconstructed. The volcano's first explosions probably began in the morning of 24 August, around 9 or 10am, depositing a thin layer of ash over the surrounding area. At 1pm a column of pulverised rock was thrown about 20km into the air. It was this cloud that caught the attention of Pliny the Elder at Misenum 30km away. As admiral of the fleet at Misenum, he readied a single ship to investigate, but on receiving a first-hand account of the events at Vesuvius gave the order to prepare more vessels to help the people who lived near the volcano. In the meantime, debris rained down on Pompeii and the surrounding area and was carried southwest by the wind. Distribution of this material was not even, but Pompeii was amongst the most severely affected. In the space of 18 hours 2.5m of pumice fell on the city. Though pumice is low density (it is porous and often floats on water), the growing weight would have placed considerable stress on buildings, and it has been estimated that 0.4m of pumice and ash was enough to collapse a roof. Anyone sheltering inside rather than fleeing Pompeii would have risked being crushed to death.[25] This stage of activity, during which Vesuvius produced 2.6 million cubic metres of pumice, has been dubbed the Plinian phase. Cassius Dio noted that ash from the eruption reached Rome, where it was believed to cause an outbreak of disease, and Africa.[26]

While Vesuvius erupted, earthquakes shook the region, causing a tsunami at Misenum. On the morning of 25 August, the nature of the eruption changed. As the pumice finished falling, pyroclastic flows hit the surrounding area, burying them in a further 0.5–2m of material. Pliny recorded that a dark cloud collapsed down the side of Vesuvius; this was the pyroclastic flow. A second flow followed.[27] Temperatures within pyroclastic flows range from 200oC to 700oC. Anyone caught by them would have perished.[28]

Pompeii along with the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Stabiae were destroyed. After the eruption ended people were sent to the area to assess what could be done, but only the roofs of the tallest buildings could be seen. Some statues were recovered, and presumably some portable valuables, but the area was abandoned and it eventually became farmland. Herculaneum fared worse, and survivors did not attempt to recover their belongings. Survivors settled elsewhere, and the location of Pompeii passed out of living memory and remained hidden for centuries.[29]

The Buildings

(CC [4]) Photo: Michael Davies
The Basilica at Pompeii.
(CC [5]) Photo: Tony Moorey
A street in Pompeii with a stepping stone.

The walls which enclosed Pompeii extended for 3km and were pierced by eight gates. Moving clockwise from the west their modern names are: the Herculaneum Gate, the Vesuvius Gate, the Capua Gate, the Noa Gate, the Sarno Gate, the Nuceria Gate, the Stabian Gate, and the Sea Gate. The oldest part of Pompeii is the south west corner, known as "The Old Town." In contrast, the rest of the city was laid out on a grid pattern with regularly sized divisions. According to Michael Grant the organised layout of Pompeii "provides the earliest known systematic urban layout in Italy".[30][31] The town's streets were narrow, usually between 2.4m and 4.5m wide, and intersections were often decorated with fountains. Refuse and water collected in the streets, and stepping stones helped citizens cross them; vehicles would have been unimpeded as they usually had high axles.[32]

Though nothing stands of the earliest buildings, the area's antiquity can be discerned through its irregular street pattern, while the rest of Pompeii is more ordered. The oldest standing structures date from the late 4th century B.C. Excavations have shown that inhabited areas grew beyond the city walls near the gates. After the golden age of the tufa period (3rd and 2nd century B.C), building work stagnated in the mid-1st century A.D. Two public buildings—a temple dedicated to the Emperor Vespasian and a building dedicated to the gods protecting the city—were built but these were the exception. By A.D. 79 many buildings were still not fully repaired after the serious earthquake nearly two decades earlier. Of the public buildings only the Temple of Isis and the amphitheatre were fully repaired.[30]

Southern Italy saw the emergence of several distinct types of public building which would become commonplace in Roman architecture: amphitheatres, basilicas, baths, and Roman theatres. Pompeii includes examples of these, offering insight into the building fashions of the 1st century B.C. The oldest surviving basilica is to be found at Pompeii (located next to the Forum), while the amphitheatre is the oldest known stone-built structure of its type. The amphitheatre was located in the eastern corner of the city walls, and it was common for Roman amphitheatres to be located on the peripheries of settlements. The area where gladiatorial battles took place was oval and measured 67m by 35m. Including its seating (which could hold up to 20,000 people; about the population of Pompeii itself) the oval amphitheatre measured 140m by 105m.[33][15][34] While gladiatorial games were perhaps the most popular entertainment in Pompeii, the city also had two theatres, one large enough to seat 5,000 people and the other 2,000.[35]

Pompeii's private buildings included homes (domus), bars, brothels, and shops. A catalogue compiled by German archaeologist Verena Gassner counted around 600 shops in Pompeii.[36] Prostitution was a common part of life in a Roman city, and it has been estimated that there were as many as 35 brothels in Pompeii.[37]

Politics and People

The Roman rule imposed by Sulla in 80 B.C. led to the implementation of a Roman form of governance. Surviving inscriptions allow historians to piece together Pompeii's political history from that time until its destruction in A.D. 79. The sources range from dedications on monuments to campaign posters (around 3,000 elections posters survive, etched on the walls of Pompeii), and they present a more detailed political history for any Roman settlement other than Rome. A council, known as the ordo decurionum, was established and had between 80 and 100 councillors (decurions).[38]

(CC [6]) Photo: David Flam
A mosaic from Pompeii, currently in the care of the Museo Nazionale in Naples.

Only certain groups were allowed to become decurions, and an important qualification was owning a certain amount of property. Meetings of the ordo decuriunum were presided over by two duovir, senior magistrates. Two junior magistrates known as aediles helped the daily running of the city, and dealt with issues such as clearing the streets. Magistrates were elected annually and the positions fiercely contested. Elections were held in March and successful candidates entered office on 1 July. In the 1st century B.C., the politician Cicero wrote that it was harder to become elected to the council in Pompeii than the Senate in Rome.[38][39]

When Sulla established Roman rule at Pompeii in 80 B.C., the previous inhabitants were banned from holding public office though inscriptions demonstrate their descendants permeated positions of power.[40] One effect of the influx of colonists in the 1st century B.C. was the introduction of Roman funerary rites: tombs and monuments to the deceased were erected lining the roads to and from Pompeii and were common at other Roman settlements.[41]

It is uncertain how many people lived in Pompeii, with estimates varying between 6,400 and 30,000, but the most common figure is 20,000.[42] Studying the demography of the ancient world is full of uncertainties, but it has been estimated that around 28 B.C. around half of the people living in cities in Italy would have been slaves. The remaining free citizens would have included those who had been born free and those who were previously slaves but had gained their freedom.[43] Writing in 2008, classicist Mary Beard noted that about a quarter of Pompeii remains buried. She suggested that the number of bodies recovered within the city (1,100 when she was writing) indicated that many of the inhabitants left Pompeii. An estimate from 1982 put the number of bodies recovered from around Pompeii at 2,000.[42][44]

Discovery and Investigation

As the centuries passed, soil accumulated over the buried city, so that by the time excavations began archaeologists had to dig through 2m of top soil (meaning the Roman ground level was 6m underground). Though an inscription mentioning Pompeii was discovered when the River Sarno was diverted in 1594, it was not until the 18th century that the city was rediscovered. Herculaneum was discovered by accident in 1709 and organised excavations began in 1738. The growing interest surrounding Herculaneum provoked Roque de Alcubierre to investigate the site where the inscription was found in 1594, and in 1748 he began excavations.[45] Alcubierre had been commissioned by Charles IV, King of Naples, to excavate at Herculaneum with the purpose of recovering antiques to decorate his palaces, and Alcubierre turned to Pompeii in pursuit of further treasure. The methods of investigating the city were destructive and drew considerable criticism from contemporaries, include Karl Weber who join the project in 1750. Weber was in favour of drawing plans of the structures discovered, but Alcubierre disagreed believing it was not a valuable exercise and would divert resources from uncovering treasure.[46]

The city was not identified as Pompeii until 1763 when an inscription with the settlement's name was recovered; it mentioned respublica Pompeianorum, "the commonwealth of the Pompeians".[47] Classicist Joachim Winckelmann visited the excavations of Herculaneum in 1762 and his letters elevated it and Pompeii to international renown. The Herculaneum Academy was founded in 1775 to support the investigation of the site, and many of the discoveries from the settlements of Vesuvius are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples.[45]

(CC [7]) Photo: Penn State University Libraries Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library
The technique of filling cavities with plaster to recreate the bodies of those who died at Pompeii was invented in 1864.

The inhabitants who died during the eruption left behind cavities in the volcanic ash where their bodies decayed. In 1864, Giuseppe Fiorelli developed the method of filling these cavities with plaster. When broken apart, the solidified ash would reveal the figure of the deceased. In some cases the casts were so detailed that clothes could be made out. Under Fiorelli, the scientific investigation of Pompeii flourished.[48] In 1862, the Purpose-Built Brothel was uncovered; the walls of its five small rooms were decorated with frescos depicting sexual scenes. It is popular amongst modern tourists, visited by thousands of people everyday.[49]

Rome's Forum was not extensively excavated until the 1870s, so Pompeii in the early 19th century offered the first insight into significant remains of a Roman forum. The ruins of Pompeii have undergone significant alterations after their excavation. For instance in the early 20th century it was common to replace Roman walls with damp proof walling.[50] Excavations at Pompeii were halted by the Second World War. In 1943, fighting moved to Naples and the Americans bombed any buildings identified as barracks near Naples. It was assumed that buildings with metal roofs were Nazi barracks, and since some areas of Pompeii were protected by metal sheeting, they inadvertently became a target and leading to considerable damage. In all, 162 bombs were dropped on Pompeii. The act was described historian Ronald Schaffer as having "no apparent military reason" and aside from the eruption of Pompeii is considered by Mary Beard as the "biggest damage Pompeii ever suffered".[51]

The majority of archaeological investigations in Pompeii have been focused on its state at the time of its destruction. As a result relatively little is known about the site's earlier history. It is thought that the Old Town covered about 14 hectares and was centred around the Temple of Apollo and the Triangular Forum. The settlement expanded to the north and east to cover 66 hectares,[52] which was about average for a Roman town in the early Empire.[53]

Pompeii has attracted the attention of both academics and the general public, and a plethora of material has been written about the city since its discovery, from guides and populist books to academic works. The intensive study of the city has also resulted in the publication of a ten-volume encyclopaedia detailing each house. In the first decade of the 21st century alone, dozens of universities were involved in the study of Pompeii.[54] Since excavations began around 20,000m2 of wall paintings have been recovered from the city.[55]

Preservation

A combination of exposure to the elements, damage during the Second World War, and the cumulative effect of millions of visitors to Pompeii each year have contributed to the decay of the site. The situation was such that when the World Monuments Fund launched the World Monuments Watch List in 1996, and Pompeii was included on the inaugural list.[56] The Watch List is updated every two years and Pompeii was also included in the 1998 and 2000 lists (though 2000 was the last time).[57]

In 1997, Pompeii and Herculaneum became designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, recognising the importance of the archaeological sites. The World Heritage Site is named the "Archaeological Areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata". While conservation projects have been undertaken in the early 21st century (partly due to the World Monuments Fund) the state of Pompeii's preservation came into sharp focus in 2010 when heavy rainfall triggered the collapse of two well-known buildings within the city: the Gladiators' House and the House of the Moralist. The damage sparked debate over whether Pompeii received enough funding for its preservation, and in 2012 the Italian government began a project of conservation costing an estimated €105 million. The city receives around 2.5 million visitors each year.[58]

References

  1. Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (London: Profile Books, 2008), 34.
  2. Alison Cooley and M. G. L. Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2004), 6–8, 17.
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