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