From the eve of destruction
All ruined cities remind us of the passing of time and the fragility of human life, but Pompeii and Herculaneum, since their rediscovery 2½ centuries ago, have also fascinated generations of visitors because of the manner of their destruction.
Many cities have fallen into disrepair and eventually ruin after military defeat or persistent attacks from pirates made them uninhabitable; others withered after changes in trade routes or technology undermined their relevance; others again were gradually abandoned as estuaries silted up and the land around them became malarial. But only Pompeii and Herculaneum were annihilated by the kind of overwhelming natural catastrophe that commercial films attempt to evoke with ever more sophisticated and yet hollow special effects.
Adding to the pathos of the event are its time and place, and even the fact — as the current exhibition emphasises — that we know a great deal about one of the most important figures involved. Cities that fall into a slow decline usually do so out of the spotlight of history, in remote borderlands or in troubled periods that are poorly documented: when Porto Torres in Sardinia, said to have been founded by Julius Caesar and evidently an important centre on the trade route between Rome and Marseilles, gradually fell victim to the raids of Arab pirates, there was no one to chronicle the slow and reluctant abandonment of the site.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, on the other hand, were prosperous centres in a flourishing region of Campania in the first century AD. Naples was an important Greek city that had allied itself with the Roman republic in the Punic Wars against Carthage in the third century BC, and had subsequently become part of the Roman state, although it preserved its Hellenistic culture and the use of the Greek language. Not far to the west of Naples was Cumae, the first Greek colony on the Italian mainland, and to the southwest was Misenum, the great port built by Agrippa as the main base of the Mediterranean fleet.
Virgil, who was born in Mantua, lived for most of his life as a writer in Naples, no doubt because it was much more beautiful, peaceful and healthy than Rome, and above all because it was a place to be immersed in the Greek culture and language that so influenced his work: his Eclogues were inspired by the Sicilian Hellenistic poet Theocritus, the Georgics by Hesiod and the Aeneid by Homer.
Virgil also imagined a number of important events in the Aeneid as taking place in this landscape: Daedalus, escaping with his artificial wings from Crete and losing his son Icarus on the way, came to land at Cumae. Centuries later, Aeneas must visit the Sibyl, the prophetess of Apollo, in her cave there, before descending to the underworld at Lake Avernus nearby. Cumae is still an evocative archeological site, and you can visit the Antro della Sibilla, discovered in 1932, an artificial passage cut into the stone and leading to an underground chamber. When I was deep in the cave a few years ago, on what seemed like a clear day, there was a sudden and memorable thunderstorm.
Apart from its cultural and literary associations, the whole coastline of the Gulf of Naples, from Misenum to Surrentum, was also a place of seaside resorts and the villas of wealthy Romans. The little island of the Castel dell’Ovo in the bay of the city of Naples was once the villa of the immensely rich Lucullus; half a millennium later it is said to be the place where the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated. In the Middle Ages it was popularly believed that Virgil had hidden a magical egg in the walls of the island’s fortifications, hence its name.
Baiae, west of Naples, was one of the most notorious pleasure resorts of the time. My 11year old daughter, whom I took to visit this exhibition, had read of the saying that a young girl goes to Baiae as Penelope but returns as Helen. In the second and third centuries, Philostratus, writing in Greek, composed a large collection of literary descriptions of paintings, in a literary genre known as ekphrasis. Unlike some other examples of the genre, these paintings may have been imaginary, but they are described as being in the galleries of a magnificent villa overlooking the sea on this very coast.
One of the great houses excavated in Herculaneum, the Villa dei Papiri, gives some idea of the kind of house Philostratus imagines: it is named for its enormous library, many of whose calcinated scrolls may soon be readable using the same kind of highly sophisticated CT scanning technology that now allows us to look inside mummy wrapping without disturbing the mummies, and which may yield lost masterpieces of ancient poetry or philosophy. The many bronze statues found in this villa confirm the wealth and the cultural interests of its owner.
But it was not all wealth, culture and pleasures. The economy of the region was based on agriculture — cereal crops, vineyards, fig orchards — and beside Greek Naples there were towns like Pompeii, which was populated by Samnites and Latins; Sulla had also settled a large number of his veterans in the region in 80 BC, inevitably upsetting many of the original inhabitants. Pompeii was a busy trading city, famous for its fish sauce, garum, probably somewhat like the fish sauce of Vietnam and Thailand today. As visitors to the ruins know, it had plenty of bars and brothels, but the wealthier and more cultivated citizens had beautiful frescoes on their walls and sculptures in their gardens.
Above all this, in the middle of a bay which has always been considered one of the great beauty spots of the world, stood a tall, conical mountain that no one knew was a volcano, for there had not been an eruption in recorded his- tory. There had indeed been some warning signs: in AD 62 a severe earthquake caused significant damage in the region: repairs after this quake are still detectable in the ruins of the later cataclysm. A small relief in the exhibition and recalling that event shows a temple shaking on its foundations and, in an unintentionally comic detail, two equestrian statues whose riders seem to be struggling to retain their seat. The eruption began, almost out of the blue and in the heat of late summer, on August 24, AD 79, at about 1pm, when the mountain suddenly erupted, sending a massive column of ash and pumice high into the air like the explosion of a nuclear bomb. Ash began to fall over the cities, but the most destructive phase came about 12 hours later when the column of ash began to collapse under its own weight, falling back to earth and creating massive superheated pyroclastic flows that rushed outwards, smashing buildings, incinerating plants and instantly killing all the inhabitants who remained behind. It happened that the most famous scientist of his time, Pliny the Elder, was commander of the fleet at Misenum at the time, and was accompanied by his nephew Pliny the Younger, best known today for his published correspondence, which includes an eyewitness account of the eruption. Pliny the Elder was the author of the multi-volume Natural History, which was for more than 1500 years after his death a fundamental reference work for everything from geology to art history. Driven by scientific curiosity as well as the humanitarian impulse to rescue victims of the