When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii, a small settlement at the base of the volcano, was instantly buried in ash and soot. The ash preserved the town and its people, turning Pompeii into a virtual time capsule of ancient Italian life. Pompeii is essentially a life-size museum, offering a window into the past unlike any other.
Pompeii Before The Eruption (600 BC - 79 AD)
Pompeii is located in the region of Campania in the province of Naples, situated along Italy's southwestern coast. The settlement grew rapidly during the 7th century BC because the area was a crossroads connecting the ancient cities of Cumae, Stabiae and Nola. Its primary agricultural products were wine and oil, and it was also an important seaport, handling goods imported for distribution in Rome and the surrounding areas.
During its existence, Pompeii was under the control of several governments. Originally, its residents were descended from a line of people who spoke Oscan, an Italic language in the same family as Latin. Despite being captured by the Greeks, Etruscans, and later the Romans, the people of Pompeii managed to retain their language and their local government. Pompeii remained loyal to Rome until 91 BC, at which point Rome sent in generals and other military officials to quell the rebellion. Pompeii would not survive to see officials to quell the rebellion. Pompeii would not survive to see how the shifting tensions with Rome played out.
Vesuvius Erupts (79 AD)
Mount Vesuvius is recognized as one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes. Surprisingly, several million people currently live in its path, obviously willing to tempt fate by defying the volcano's capacity for destruction. Vesuvius has erupted dozens of times throughout history, the most recent being in 1944.
But the eruption that destroyed Pompeii was by far the most powerful, not to mention the most famous. Simultaneously destroying the city and preserving it, the eruption killed anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 people in Pompeii and the neighboring towns of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata. Residents fled toward the coast in an attempt to escape the volcano's lava, and approximately ten feet of ash and rock buried the city in its entirety. As well as preserving wall paintings, jars and other artifacts, the lava captured people sitting at tables or frozen in their final act as living beings. The event was recorded by an eyewitness, the historian Pliny the Younger, who lost his uncle, Pliny the Elder, during an attempt to rescue survivors.
Rediscovering Pompeii (1599 to 1961)
The ruins of Pompeii were first discovered by workmen in 1599, but it wasn't until 1874 that the Bourbon rulers of southern Italy instigated a serious campaign to uncover the site. Following increased activity in 1806-1815, excavation was sporadic until the unification of Italy in 1861, at which point it once again became a methodical operation.
In 1863, an important development occurred on the site. When his workers informed the director that they'd discovered bones inside several cavities, he ordered them to stop work and arranged for a mixture of plaster and water to be poured into the holes. When the plaster dried and was removed, it revealed the clearly defined forms of four dead bodies, even capturing the expressions on their faces. From that point on, a large number of plaster casts were made of the Pompeii victims.
1924-1961 was a period of intense activity, followed by a scaling down in later years as the emphasis moved towards preserving the exposed ruins. In 1997 UNESCO added Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata to its listing of World Heritage sites.
Present Day Pompeii
Today, visitors come from all areas of the globe to view Pompeii's remains. Despite being 2,000 years old, the streets and buildings give a sharp picture of what life was like many centuries ago.
Highlights of Pompeii include several large houses belonging to merchants and other important residents - the House of the Vetii and the House of the Fawn are the most well known. Many of the houses and buildings in ancient Pompeii feature stunning frescoes on their walls and ceilings. The public marketplace remains intact, as well as a large ancient amphitheater built into the side of a hill. The streets of Pompeii are the original Roman stone, complete with grooves worn by wheeled carts that were used to carry goods. In addition to the artifacts displayed in the city itself, many of the more valuable pieces are on display in the nearby National Museum in Naples.
Here's a short (3-minute) video of Pompeii that speaks far more eloquently than words...
[Please press the small grey arrow at the bottom of the window to start.]
If you'd like to learn more about Pompeii, the following books and DVDs are a good starting point: