Pompeii: The Roman city frozen in time
“Caecilius est in horto. Cerberus est canis.” This might bring back memories if you were made to learn Latin at school, with the Cambridge Latin Course textbooks about Caecilius, Metella and Cerberus the dog who lived in Pompeii. I might not be able to remember any of my verb endings and can’t say I enjoyed Latin much (our class all cheered when we got to the bit in the books where Vesuvius erupted and wiped them out!), but those books did start off my fascination with Pompeii, the city preserved like a snapshot of Roman life frozen in time. It was just another Roman seaside resort until Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and covered it in a blanket of volcanic ash 25 metres deep. The eruption killed thousands of people and buried the entire city, which was eventually forgotten until it was unearthed by explorers 1800 years later. Now it’s one of the most famous Roman sites in the world, and was top of my list of things to see in Italy.
The first thing you notice about Pompeii is its size. It’s estimated that around 20,000 people lived here and the archaeological site covers over 160 acres, so you could easily spend a week wandering around it all. So with only a day to spare we took a guided tour of the site with Walks of Italy, which took us to some of the most interesting spots and brought the history around us to life.
Our first stop was a bath house and brothel, not usually open to the public. These were originally located in the port area to take care of the sailors’ needs when they arrived into port. It’s hard to imagine now that there was a harbour full of boats in front of where we stood, as the eruption added so much material that Pompeii’s now over 2km away from the coast. But back then the arriving sailors would come into the port-side baths to steam in the caldarium and cool off in the frigidarium before heading upstairs.
The layer of ash did an amazing job of preserving the details of the buildings, from the colourful frescoes and ornate mosaics to the underground engineering used to heat the baths. You can even still see the paintings in the entrance to the brothel describing the different positions customers could choose from – numbers 1 to 10 anyway, as 11–20 are missing, and having seen the first 10 the mind boggles!
Inside the main city walls, we dodged the tour groups (with 2,500,000 visitors a year you’re going to come across a few…) as we walked through the paved city streets. The layout is just as it would have been before the eruption, with private homes mixed in with shops, restaurants, temples, an amphitheatre and even a hotel. And the extent of the preservation gives an amazing insight into how the Romans lived here. You can see graffiti carved into the walls (mostly students complaining about their teachers, with the occasional teacher complaining back), indentations in the road which have been worn down by the wheels of chariots, and an early ‘beware of the dog’ sign made out of mosaic.
There are also the eerie body casts. Back in 1860 an archaeologist called Guiseppe Fiorelli realised that the empty spaces in the ash around the human bones he found were where the bodies had decomposed, and by filling them with plaster you could make a cast of the position they were in when they died. You can see them curled up in a foetal position or with hands shielding their faces from the eruption – apparently the temperatures reached 250°C and would have killed anyone long before the ash arrived. You can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been. Many people had evacuated the city by then, scared off by the increasing number of earthquakes, but some still remained as “Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room” – words from Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from across the Bay of Naples.
You can still see some of the body casts around Pompeii, but a lot of them and other relics and artworks were taken away and are now displayed in Naples’ Archaeological Museum. After years of preservation under the ash, exposure to the light, air, weather, and a few 17th century looters made it much harder to look after Pompeii. Just to keep it as it is and stop any further damage costs the Italian government millions a year. The lack of funding has meant that new excavation has been stopped as all the money available has been ploughed into conservation, so who knows what else still lies under the ground?
One of our last stops and a highlight of the tour was the Villa dei Misteri, or Villa of the Mysteries. Set just outside the main the city walls, it’s quieter than the main site and is thought to be the holiday home of a wealthy merchant, which had a fantastic location on the waterfront. It has one of the best preserved frescoes in Pompeii, with amazingly vivid colours. It’s also the source of the mystery that gave the villa its name, as no one can agree on what it shows. Does it show a young woman preparing for marriage, the life story of the god Dionysos, or women being inducted into some mystery cult? Either way it’s spectacular to look at, but reminds us that however much we can learn about them from the ruins of Pompeii, the Romans still keep a few secrets to themselves.
Disclaimer: My guided tour of Vesuvius was kindly provided by Walks of Italy, but all opinions in this article are, as always, my own. And in case your Latin is as bad as mine, the sentence at the top says “Caecilius is in the garden. Cerberus is a dog”. Useful to know!