Redis­cov­er­ing Pom­peii

An en­tire town was wiped off the map al­most 2,000 years ago – so how did we find it again?

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Katharine Marsh

Lat­est finds and the­o­ries from the Ro­man Empire’s iconic “lost” city

At the foot of a vol­cano in south­ern Italy lies one of the an­cient world’s most fa­mous cities, its legacy on par with the Eter­nal City it­self. For hun­dreds of years, it lay for­got­ten, buried un­der lay­ers of ash and dirt. whole town, a place where peo­ple had lived their lives from birth to death, had slipped from peo­ple’s minds, re­signed to the an­nals of an­cient his­tory, all be­cause of one fate­ful day in 79 CE.

That was un­til it was found, com­pletely by ac­ci­dent, in 1599.

Pom­peii’s demise should have been ob­vi­ous right from the start – the city that would be­come fa­mous for be­ing buried in a cat­a­clysmic vol­canic erup­tion was built on a spur that had been formed by a pre­his­toric lava flow. While we don’t know much de­tail about Pom­peii’s early days, we do know that the city was cre­ated by an Os­can tribe that was then in­flu­enced by some Greeks who sailed over in the 8th cen­tury BCE. How­ever, 100 years later came the Etr­uscans, a civil­i­sa­tion that ruled the area un­til the Greeks de­cided to take it back af­ter their vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Cu­mae in 474 BCE. For 70 or so years, things were peace­ful once more un­til the Sam­nites, an Italic tribe, ap­peared to­wards the end of the 5th cen­tury.

It was thanks to the Sam­nites that the Ro­mans first be­came in­ter­ested in Cam­pa­nia, the area in which Pom­peii and its neigh­bour­ing towns of Her­cu­la­neum and

Stabiae were nes­tled.

The Sam­nite

Wars of 343 to 290 BCE saw Rome take a lik­ing to Pom­peii and it tried to ex­ert its in­flu­ence, but Pom­peii wasn’t hav­ing any of it.

Fiercely in­de­pen­dent, Pom­peii tried to rebel but the Ro­man con­sul

Sulla came in and squashed it in 80

BCE, set­ting up his colony of Venus by re­set­tling 4,000-5,000 sol­diers in the city.

Pom­peii was a pros­per­ous town, densely pop­u­lated with 10,000 to

12,000 peo­ple, one-third of whom were slaves, over an area of three square kilo­me­tres. Be­ing so close to the fer­tile slopes of

Mount Ve­su­vius was noth­ing

less than a boon too, with hun­dreds of farms and vil­las just out­side the town pro­vid­ing food and goods. The city also had the ad­van­tage of be­ing al­most right on the coast – the land­scape of the Bay of Naples has since changed, mak­ing Pom­peii seem fur­ther in­land – but it was this that at­tracted the up­per classes of Ro­man so­ci­ety. In a way, Pom­peii was their sea­side re­sort, with their vil­las pro­vid­ing grand views of the bay and the stun­ning scenery all around. The city even piqued the in­ter­est of Em­peror Nero, re­mem­bered to­day for his tyranny, whose wife Pop­paea Sabina was ac­tu­ally a na­tive Pom­pei­ian.

Home to a port, Pom­peii saw some of the Ro­man Empire’s most ex­pen­sive goods pass through its streets. Silk, clams and wild an­i­mals all en­tered the Ital­ian penin­sula there, as well as ex­otic fruits from around the known world. Garum, a kind of fish sauce, was made lo­cally, and olives were plen­ti­ful as they grew in groves on the slopes of the moun­tain.

Life in Pom­peii was nor­mal – that’s per­haps why it’s at­tracted such fame over the years since its dis­cov­ery. It was as or­di­nary as Ro­man towns got, with an am­phithe­atre, baths and graf­fiti-cov­ered walls. Thanks to the preser­va­tion caused by the erup­tion in 79 CE, we know how houses were laid out, the names of some of the home­own­ers, and how peo­ple spent their free time. It’s thanks to Pom­peii that we know about Cae­cil­ius and his fam­ily, made fa­mous by a Doc­tor Who episode but who have lived on in the first book of the Cam­bridge Latin Course that’s still used to teach Latin to sec­ondary school chil­dren in Britain to­day.

But Pom­peii wasn’t the im­age of per­fec­tion – ev­ery few years, tremors would cause a lit­tle bit of trou­ble. It usu­ally wasn’t enough for peo­ple to pack up and leave (per­haps they should have, but they didn’t re­ally know they were at the foot of a vol­cano), but from time to time it would cause some dis­rup­tion and de­struc­tion. On 5 Feb­ru­ary 62 CE, that’s ex­actly what hap­pened. Ve­su­vius awoke un­der­ground and the rum­bles were felt in Neapo­lis (modern-day Naples), and some of the build­ings were dam­aged. Pom­peii wasn’t so lucky.

Parts of the thick city walls crashed to the ground and tem­ples crum­bled. Parts of the town were rav­aged by flames and even the sheep couldn’t es­cape – graz­ing in the coun­try­side nearby, they choked on the poi­sonous fumes. The aque­ducts that pro­vided wa­ter to the town were de­stroyed and the bridge over the nearby River Sarno col­lapsed. No one knows how many peo­ple died but it’s es­ti­mated that hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, per­ished. This time, flocks of peo­ple left the city – why should they stay in a town that was fall­ing down around them? They’d be bet­ter off tak­ing their fam­i­lies and their trades else­where. Lit­tle did they know what a good move that would be in the long run.

Mean­while, those who stayed be­hind tried to re­build. City walls were re­built and tem­ples were re­paired. Wa­ter be­gan flow­ing to the city once more and the im­prove­ments were spurred on when Nero came to visit in 64 CE. In fact, Nero’s visit was a joy­ous oc­ca­sion – the ban on gla­di­a­tor fights was lifted for the im­pe­rial vis­i­tors. It had been five years since Pom­peii had hosted a gla­di­a­tor match – af­ter they’d ri­oted and fought with neigh­bour­ing Nuce­ri­ans in 59 CE, they’d been banned from hold­ing any bouts by Nero him­self.

Af­ter that, life went back to nor­mal. Slowly but surely, the re­main­ing Pom­pei­ians re­built their city and car­ried on. What else was there for them to do? If only they knew that it would have been in vain.

There was noth­ing spe­cial about the year 79 CE. The em­peror Ves­pasian did die at the start of the sum­mer, but that wasn’t an event that would im­pact the lower classes much ex­cept for a dif­fer­ent head on their coins. Rome’s Colos­seum wasn’t due to be fin­ished for an­other year. Life was just plod­ding along, no dif­fer­ent to usual.

That was un­til the strange events started oc­cur­ring. The fish that swam in the River Sarno be­gan to float dead on the sur­face. Springs and wells dried up. The vines on the fer­tile slopes of the moun­tain be­gan to wither and die.

In Au­gust that year, as al­ways, the cit­i­zens cel­e­brated Vul­cana­lia, wor­ship­ping Vul­can, the god of fire. In hind­sight,

“Parts of the thick city walls crashed to the ground and tem­ples crum­bled”

the irony is al­most painful. De­vo­tions were made to the de­ity and the wine flowed as the pop­u­lace played games and lit bon­fires. It was fes­ti­val as­so­ci­ated with phe­nom­ena that couldn’t be ex­plained – earth­quakes, like the ones Pom­peii was used to, and fires as well as the strange hap­pen­ings that were plagu­ing the bay. Vul­can had to be pla­cated, and the Pom­pei­ians tried as the mer­ri­ment con­tin­ued into the dark of the night, only the bon­fires pro­vid­ing light. Not a bad way to spend your last night.

The next morn­ing, 24 Au­gust, was nor­mal. Peo­ple were doubt­less wak­ing up with hang­overs, go­ing about their busi­ness in the town when – bang! A deaf­en­ing sound like a thun­der­clap echoed through the air. It was a sound no one had heard be­fore – it was the sound of magma burst­ing through Ve­su­vius’s crater. Smoke be­gan to bil­low; the moun­tain was on fire.

We get most of our in­for­ma­tion about the erup­tion from Pliny the Younger, who was at home across the bay in Misenum, and what he de­scribed was noth­ing short of a dra­matic erup­tion. Around mid­day, a tower of black smoke shot 20 kilo­me­tres into the sky. Peo­ple ran around ter­ri­fied – some headed to the shore, hop­ing to be res­cued, but the vol­cano was spew­ing pumice. The rocks rain­ing down from above blocked any ac­cess to the town by sea and peo­ple were trapped as more cit­i­zens tried to make a bid for free­dom. As they hur­ried through the streets, the tremors had started once again, vi­o­lent enough to col­lapse en­tire build­ings – at least the build­ings that had man­aged to be re­built af­ter the earth­quakes in the 60s.

In Misenum, only one thing was on Pliny’s un­cle’s mind: sav­ing the trapped. He or­dered his boat to be read­ied and set sail “with so much calm­ness and pres­ence of mind as to be able to make and dic­tate his ob­ser­va­tions upon the mo­tion and all the phe­nom­ena of that dread­ful scene”. He headed straight for Pom­peii and man­aged to land his boat on the shore. Pliny would never see him again.

Af­ter the boat’s moor­ing, the sea be­gan to be­have oddly. Ac­cord­ing to Pliny, it “seemed to roll back upon it­self, and to be driven from its banks by the con­vul­sive mo­tion of the earth; it is cer­tain at least the shore was con­sid­er­ably en­larged, and sev­eral sea an­i­mals were left upon it”. Mean­while the black cloud was grow­ing, and flashes of light­ning were added to the mix.

In the evening, more pumice rained down on Pom­peii, along with a con­sid­er­able amount of ash. Ceil­ings buck­led un­der the weight, crush­ing any­one who was shel­ter­ing un­der­neath them. As night ap­proached and the Sun shrank be­hind the hori­zon, the dark that swept over the bay was

un­wel­come. It was the end of the world – those still alive would never see the light of day again.

Chil­dren were shout­ing for their moth­ers; men were stand­ing with their hands in the sky, won­der­ing why the gods had for­saken them. Had Vul­cana­lia not been enough? Was there an­other rit­ual they should have done?

The dark, dense cloud be­came desta­bilised as the night wore on, and the first deadly py­ro­clas­tic surge – a river of poi­sonous gases – hur­tled down the moun­tain at 100 miles an hour, headed straight for Pom­peii. Ev­ery­one it touched was as­phyx­i­ated and they died where they stood. Some were lucky, but their luck was rapidly run­ning out.

At mid­night, the cloud spilling out of Ve­su­vius’ sum­mit reached 30,000 kilo­me­tres – un­til it col­lapsed. An­other py­ro­clas­tic surge raged down the slope, this time headed for Her­cu­la­neum. Any­one who hadn’t fled was killed in­stantly.

Morn­ing didn’t break the next day. For the most part, the south side of the Bay of Naples was deathly silent. A few peo­ple were still alive, hud­dled in the ru­ins of their towns un­der the dark cloud that loomed over­head. Ter­ri­fied as they were, per­haps they didn’t see their fi­nal mo­ments com­ing as the cloud col­lapsed for the last time, send­ing the last deadly wave to­wards Pom­peii. Any­one who had been left breathed no more as the force de­stroyed the build­ings around them.

From across the bay, Pliny the Younger could see the dark­ness be­gin to dis­si­pate. He wrote: “At last this dread­ful dark­ness was dis­si­pated by de­grees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day re­turned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, like when an eclipse is com­ing on. Ev­ery ob­ject that pre­sented it­self to our eyes [which were ex­tremely weak­ened] seemed changed, be­ing cov­ered deep with ashes as if with snow.” We can only imag­ine his thoughts as he de­tailed the erup­tion in ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­tail – if the wind had changed di­rec­tion, it could have been his body that was buried.

Over the years, the ash be­came more com­pact and lay­ers of dirt formed on top of it. Over time, new cities were built on top of Ve­su­vius’s de­struc­tion. Mod­ern­day Pom­pei, Er­colano and Castel­lam­mare di Stabia were all rest­ing atop a huge and heart­break­ing tragedy that the world had for­got­ten. Un­til 1599, that is.

Domenico Fon­tana was dig­ging a new course for the River Sarno when he ac­ci­den­tally struck the city. He cre­ated some un­der­ground tun­nels and ex­plored a lit­tle, but the story goes that he was shocked by the sex­ual na­ture of some of the fres­coes – it was the late 16th cen­tury, af­ter all – and so he re­buried what he’d found. It took 150 years for in­ter­est to grow in what he’d dis­cov­ered.

In 1748, ex­ca­va­tions be­gan in the re­gion at a site that was sim­ply named ‘Civita’, from the Latin word for ‘town’. The first phase was ef­fec­tively a sanc­tioned loot­ing mis­sion – any trea­sures like stat­ues and busts were shipped off to Charles III of Spain, although they now have their home in the Na­tional Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum in Naples. Thanks to fairly prim­i­tive ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tech­niques, some of the fres­coes and other items were ac­ci­den­tally de­stroyed.

When the team tried to back­fill what they’d dis­cov­ered, there was up­roar from some in the clas­sics com­mu­nity, who ar­gued that what had been found should be pre­served, but it wasn’t un­til the early 1800s that method­ol­ogy be­gan to change.

French rule in the Bay of the Naples had an un­ex­pected side ef­fect: the digs be­came more or­gan­ised, and items and peo­ple were cat­a­logued. A to­tal of 1,500 work­men were em­ployed to sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­ca­vate the town from west to east. By 1860, a fair amount had been dug up.

Things changed again when Giuseppe Fiorelli took up the project in 1863. His meth­ods fo­cused on con­ser­va­tion and he or­dered his men to start at the top of the houses and work their way down to pre­serve ev­ery­thing that was dis­cov­ered. Fiorelli was also the man who di­vided the town into the sec­tions that we know to­day, and he did one more im­por­tant thing. The type of erup­tion that had oc­curred in 79 CE had pre­served ev­ery­thing ex­tremely well, ex­cept for the vic­tims them­selves. How­ever, what was left be­hind of them were holes in the shape of their bod­ies when they died. Fiorelli made plas­ter casts of th­ese holes, which are now the im­ages most as­so­ci­ated with Pom­peii.

You could say that the rest is his­tory, but it’s his­tory that keeps on be­ing dis­cov­ered as ex­ca­va­tions are tak­ing place with more and more evolved ar­chae­o­log­i­cal tech­niques. The digs have never re­ally stopped and a new area, Re­gio V, is cur­rently in the process of be­ing un­cov­ered. Skele­tons have been found, as well as walls painted a vi­brant red and new build­ings like the House of Jupiter. New tech­niques are be­ing used like lasers and drones, and the plan is to even­tu­ally open the area up like the rest of the site.

The fu­ture of Pom­peii looks brighter than its past. With in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est in the city, it at­tracts mil­lions of vis­i­tors each year who come to walk in the foot­steps of those who lived and died in the same spot al­most 2,000 years ago. How­ever, there’s still a prob­lem – some­thing cat­a­strophic.

Ve­su­vius, the vol­cano that has al­ways loomed omi­nously in the back­ground, is sup­posed to erupt ev­ery 20 years or so. It hasn’t since March 1944, and the next time it blows is sup­posed to be an event akin to that in­fa­mous deadly or­deal of 79 CE. Pom­peii, Her­cu­la­neum and the other an­cient towns in the area could be buried again, along­side the sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis of Naples or the hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion of Sor­rento on the other side of the bay. Will peo­ple be redis­cov­er­ing our cities hun­dreds of years from now, walk­ing where we walked? Only time will tell.

“The Sam­nite Wars of 343 to 290 BCE saw Rome take a lik­ing to Pom­peii”

Per­haps the most fa­mous im­age of the 79 CE erup­tion, this was painted by John Mar­tin in around 1821

Thanks to the painstak­ing work of ar­chae­ol­o­gists, we can see each flag­stone in the streets and the grooves left by carts The plas­ter casts of the vic­tims are one of the most en­dur­ing im­ages of the dis­as­ter More is be­ing un­cov­ered ev­ery day as ex­ca­va­tions take place in Re­gio V The fres­coes, like this one from Nero’s villa Oplon­tis, used vi­brant colours that have re­mained thanks to their preser­va­tion in the ash Graf­fiti was com­mon­place in Pom­peii, and a lot of it has been pre­served

Mount Ve­su­vius still looms over the city – a re­minder of what has been and what is yet to come

This skele­ton of one un­for­tu­nate man was dis­cov­ered in 2018

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