Pompeii is a city located near Naples in the Campania region of Italy. In Roman times, Pompeii was a prosperous resort town until it’s destruction due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today, Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors annually. Watch the video below to take a walking tour of the Pompeii ruins (October 2021). Continue to learn more about Pompeii in the sections following the video.
The Ruins of Pompeii
Pompeii Archaeological Park can be accessed via public transportation or car and then a short walk from the designated parking area.
The volcanic eruption largely preserved Pompeii under the ash. Thus, the excavated city offers a unique snapshot of Roman life, frozen at the moment it was buried. As a wealthy town, the city features many fine public buildings and luxurious private houses with lavish decorations, furnishings and works of art which were the main attractions for the early excavators. Organic remains, including wooden objects and human bodies, were entombed in the ash. Over time, they decayed, leaving voids that archaeologists found could be used as moulds to make plaster casts of unique, and often gruesome, figures in their final moments of life.
Pompeii during Roman Times
Pompeii was one of the towns of Campania that rebelled against Rome in 89 BC and was besieged by Sulla. When Rome became victorious, Pompeii became a Roman colony with the name of “Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum“. Many of Sulla’s veterans were given land and property in and around the city.
Within a decade, Pompeii became very prosperous due to the desirability of living on the bay of Naples for rich Romans and due to its rich agricultural land.
The city became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way. The granary and public weigh stations near the ancient marina are still preserved near the forum of Pompeii today. Many public buildings were built or refurbished under the new order; this included the Amphitheater of Pompeii in 70 BC, the Forum Baths, and the Odeon, while the forum was embellished with the colonnade of Popidius before 80 BC.
These buildings raised the status of Pompeii as a cultural centre in the region. The number of places for entertainment included the Amphitheater, the large theater and the nearby small theater which significantly enhanced the social and economic development of the city. From about 20 BC, Pompeii was fed with running water by a spur from the Serino Aqueduct, built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.
Final decades of Pompeii as a city
The inhabitants of Pompeii had long been used to minor earthquakes, but on February 5th of 62 AD a severe earthquake did considerable damage to the city. On that day in Pompeii, there were to be two sacrifices, as it was the anniversary of Augustus being named “Father of the Nation” and also a feast day to honor the guardian spirits of the city. Chaos followed the earthquake including fires caused by fallen oil lamps that added to the panic. The nearby cities of Herculaneum and Nuceria were also affected. Restoration efforts from some of these damages were still likely on-going when the final catastrophic event happened decades later.
In about 64 A.D., Emperor Nero and his wife Poppaea visited Pompeii and made gifts to the temple of Venus. By 79 A.D., Pompeii had a population of 20,000, which had prospered from the region’s renowned agricultural fertility and favorable location. The numerous graffiti carved on the street walls and inside rooms provide a wealth of examples of the largely lost Vulgar Latin spoken colloquially at the time, contrasting with the formal language of the classical writers.
Eruption of Vesuvius, 79 AD
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD lasted for two days. The first phase was of pumice rain lasting about 18 hours, allowing most inhabitants to escape. Most escapees probably managed to salvage some of their valuable belongings; many skeletons were found with jewelry, coins and silverware. At some time in the night or early the next day, pyroclastic flows began near the volcano, consisting of high speed, dense, and very hot ash clouds, knocking down wholly or partly all structures in their path. This cloud incinerated or suffocated the remaining population and altered the landscape, including the coastline. The people and buildings of Pompeii were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash up to 20 feet deep.
Pliny the Younger provided a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum (written 25 years after the event). His uncle, Pliny the Elder, died while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts.
Rediscovery and excavations
Over the following centuries, Pompeii’s name and location were forgotten. Further eruptions particularly in 471–473 and 512 AD covered the remains more deeply. The area became known as the La Civita (the city) due to the features in the ground. The next known date that any part was unearthed was in 1592, when architect Domenico Fontana while digging an underground aqueduct to the mills of Torre Annunziata ran into ancient walls covered with paintings and inscriptions. He kept quiet and nothing more came of the discovery.
Karl Weber directed the first scientific excavations, followed in 1764 by military engineer Francisco la Vega. Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1863 and made greater progress. It was Fiorelli who realized there were spaces left inside the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to recreate the forms of Vesuvius’s victims. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster for better bone analysis. Today Pompeii is a well developed city and ancient Pompeii is one of the most popular archaeological site in the world.