Monday, November 9, 2009


You may have heard of the city preserved in ash for almost 2,000 years, the city that was prosperous until it came to a violent end by volcanic eruption, the city called Pompeii.

Two days ago I personally saw this amazingly restored place. Eight centuries before the common era, a city was founded by the Oscans on the West coast of the Italian peninsula. In 80 BCE, the rapidly growing city was conquered by the Roman Empire and named Pompeii. There is some dispute over exactly when Pompeii was destroyed, but archeologists are sure it was either the 24th of August or October.

Just east of the ruins is the towering volcano called Vesuvius. This was the volcano that destroyed four cities when its summit exploded in a cloud of ash and volcanic rock called pumice (puh-mis). It buried Pompeii in twenty feet of ash, dirt, and rock. Vesuvius has remained active since its catastrophic eruption in the year 79 CE. Compared to other volcanoes, Vesuvius actually looks rather innocent. I have seen a volcano that rises straight out of the sea, and one that is constantly steaming, but this one just sits there. It’s hard to believe that this peaceful looking mountain once caused such destruction with its eruption.

Once I actually saw Pompeii, I was very surprised. The city was quite big! I only expected a few streets and houses with a few more important buildings and a temple, but this city was about the size of a medium sized town. It is extremely easy to get lost in the ruins if you don’t keep track of where you are. When Pompeii was inhabited, it had always grown very quickly because of the rich volcanic soil that they used for farming. The city eventually grew so big that farmers started growing crops of the mountain itself.

A definite must-see in the ruins is the amphitheater. In short, the amphitheater is huge. It’s not just big, it’s huge. It is rather similar to the Coliseum in Rome. It would appear that it had a similar use as well, meaning gladiator fights.

One thing that Pompeii has in common with many other ancient cities is that it has a lot of temples. One is the Temple of Venus, which was unfortunately destroyed in the 64 CE earthquake. After it was conquered by Rome, the city had adopted the goddess Venus as its patron deity. Another temple was for the worship of Apollo, and featured 48 Ionic columns. The Temple of Apollo was also dedicated to the worship of the goddess Diana and Mercury, the messenger of the gods. There was also the Temple of Jupiter, also dedicated to the deities Juno and Minerva. The only temple in the city that was not used to worship the deities was the Temple of Vespasian, which was dedicated to the emperor.

Perhaps the most common thing for a Roman city to have other than houses were bathhouses. The ones in Pompeii had a close resemblance to the ones in Rome. There were three main sections: a section for men, a section for women, and the water heating plants. There were also three different types of baths: cold, warm, and steamy. The heat from the furnaces was transferred to the water by an ingenious system of double walls. Water heated in the furnaces flowed through the space between the walls and heated the water on the other sides of them.

An extremely interesting discovery in Pompeii was what is known as the House of the Vetti. The luxurious decorations and garden show the wealth of the city in its last ten years. From the archeological evidence, it is thought that there were two owners who were presumably merchants if the amount of money necessary to own such a house has anything to say. Specially engineered doorways helped keep humidity out of the house. This was to protect the wall paintings that miraculously survived the 2000 years since then. This very well-preserved house has helped us gain much knowledge about ancient Pompeii.

It was interesting to know that even the ancient city of Pompeii had the seemingly modern problem of graffiti. As I walked through the streets, I couldn’t help but notice the occasional painted roman letters and numbers on the walls of some buildings. Most were covered with Plexiglas sheets that archeologists have placed there to protect them. They were especially on the walls of big and important-looking places and sometimes inside of important-looking houses. It is a very curious thing to think about, ancient Roman graffiti.

Other than the big amphitheater, there were also two smaller theaters. There was a medium-sized one and a small one. They were both only a half circle, unlike the amphitheater. They were presumably used for performing and viewing plays.

Near the amphitheater there is a large open space that was first used as a park called the Arcaded Court. It was basically a place to exercise and relax. In the year 62 CE, it was turned into a barracks for gladiators. This deduction is based on the facts that it is right next to the amphitheater and that weapons were found in ten different rooms. Some of these weapons were very nicely made and obviously for parades. Skeletons were found in two of the rooms. Even with this evidence, the real use of the “Arcaded Court” remains uncertain.

A seemingly uninteresting part of Pompeii is the streets. They are paved with very smooth stones. Occasionally there are three tallish stones in a row that served as stepping stones across the streets. They were there in case the streets were flooded, which apparently frequently happened when thunderstorms came through. The sidewalks were also about a foot above the streets. Someone had obviously paid a lot of attention to the streets of Pompeii.

As a whole, Pompeii is an extremely fascinating place. The whole city is preserved like no other city of that time period has been. For almost two millennia it was buried beneath six meters of ash, earth, and rock. It is perhaps the most valuable source of information about life in ancient Rome. Even more excavation is being done today. If you have never been to Pompeii, you really should take a trip there in your lifetime.

-- By Orion

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