Pompeii and Herculaneum: The cities from the past

Pompeii is one of the largest tourist draws in Italy. The town presents visitors with an overwhelming array of archeological evidence, with much more preserved in museum storerooms. When the eruption of Vesuvius started on the morning of 24 August, AD 79, it caught the local population utterly unprepared. Although at the same time, as we now know in retrospect, all the tell-tale signs were there to warn them.

The excavations in Pompeii

One man who witnessed and perished in the volcanic disaster was Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23-79), better known as Pliny the Elder, whose account of his final days and fateful voyage into the region ravaged by the eruption is that of someone who did not fear nature, but sought to understand it.

Pliny the Elder

The history of science is replete with the names of individuals who made discoveries, developed new technologies or promulgated ideas. But other moments, which brought seminal changes in outlook and understanding, can be more difficult to date, and among these is the transition towards a rational mindset that slowly set aside mythology and replaced it with science.

Reconstruction of the eruption of volcano

Pliny had authored a 37-volume encyclopedia, Naturalis Historia, encompassing current knowledge of botany, zoology, astronomy, geology and minerology. At the time of the Vesuvian eruptian Pliny was Praefect of the large Roman naval fleet stationed at Misenum (modern Miseno) on the north-western shores of the Gulf of Naples, and he put to sea to better observe the eruption and to carry out the rescue operation.

Pompeian streets with stepping stones to help cross flooded, dirty streets

But when cinders and pumice from Vesuvius began raining down, and the helmsmen suggested they turn back, Pliny famously ignored the advice, saying, “Fortune favours the brave”. Sadly, the winds were wrong, and the boat was stuck in Stabiae (modern Castellammare di Stabia). While his companions survived, Pliny died, perhaps because of an asthmatic condition fatally exacerbated by the ash-filled air. Unlike modern vulcanologists, he had no protective equipment, but even today it is not unheard of for scientists who study active volcanos to perish for they passion.

The body found in the House of gladiators

Pompeii and Herculaneum have long been associated with presenting a unique snapshot of ancient life. These towns, together with some of the outlaying villas, were essentially frozen in time by the eruption. In the Roman past, as remains the case today, Pompeii was also located in a rich agricultural region, made especially fertile because of the productive volcanic soils. Pompeii also sat on an important trade route, and city’s port allowed merchants to import and export all manner of commodities on ships playing the sea-lines of the central Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, many objects in the city therefore relate to trade, as the well known inscription on the floor of Sirico’s house, salve lucru (“welcome money”), reminds visitors.

Mosaic with the Latin inscription “Beware the dog”

Pompeii boasted an amphitheatre, two theatres, palaestra (wrestling school) and an aqueduct that served various public fountains, baths and private houses. Unlike most other ancient sites, the town was preserved without alteration by later activity. At the time of its destruction, Pompeii probably had about 20,000 inhabitants, both permanent residents and wealthy Romans who used their villas there as holiday homes.

One of the most famous Pompeian mosaics

Not surprisingly, many of these villas boast elaborate mosaics (which give their name to the Pompeian Style) and other art objects. Many frescoes and everyday items had a sexual theme, and some aspects of everyday life, such as the veneration of the phallus, are at odds with more modern conceptions of morality. This may have prompted the earliest excavators to rebury what they found, particularly the frescoes.

One of the objects with erotic theme

In 1819 King Frances I of Naples was so embarrassed by the new discoveries that he established a secret cabinet that could only be visited by those above a certain age. The criteria for visiting it have been changed over the years, but it is still a special collection, although now open to the public.

Two exhibited gladiator’s helmets from Pompeii

Modern science has been applied to an examination of exact what caused the majorities of deaths in Pompeii. The previous early studies suggested that thick clouds of ash led to death via suffocation, it now appears that heat was the major killer; computer modelling suggests that even at a distance of 10 km from the crater of Vesuvius, the heat pulse could have attained temperatures of 250°C. That would explain why people died even as they sheltered in undamaged buildings.

The political graffiti on the wall

Preservation of the objects was assisted by the large amounts of ash that fell in the area, which in some parts of the city built up to a depth of 25m.  Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823 – 1896), who took over excavations at Pompeii in 1860, discovered that voids in the volcanic ash could be filled with plaster to yield cast of bodies of those killed in the eruption. Expressions of terror are still clearly visible in some of the figures brought back to life in this way; to date, well over thousand casts have been made in and around Pompeii.

Plaster cast of the body

Of the bodies that were later recovered from the site, almost 40% were found in ash fall deposits, and the majority were inside the buildings, where they had clearly seeking shelter from the ash and rocks hurled out of the volcano. Many victims in Pompeii were killed when their shelter collapsed, but over 60% died as a result of ash and heat produced by pyroclastic surge – a fluidised mass of turbulent gas and rock fragments ejected by the erupting volcano.

The loaf of bread preserved in ash

Beginning in 1981, archeologists digging in Herculaneum also began to unearth the skeletal remains of almost 300 bodies that were in remarkable state of preservation, all lying under arched vaults located near the ancient shoreline. The victims at Herculaneum were buried under about 23m of material from the pyroclastic surge, died actually of thermal shock. Thousand more bodies may still lie hidden awaiting excavation.

Herculaneum mosaics