Pompeii is another one of those places you feel like you’ve always known about. Frozen in time, it’s an awe-inspiring window into the distant past that can make a few thousand years feel like a few minutes. Although our house sit obligation in Sicily was fast approaching, we planned a short stopover to see Pompeii in one day. Bidding farewell to Rome, we dragged our luggage onto the train and set forth once again.
The train tracks circle Mount Vesuvius on the approach to Pompei. The mountain, though imposing, looks incomplete. Massive at the base, the entire top half is missing. This is what exploded off during the eruption of 79 AD, burying Pompeii and so many of its citizens. Even today, the volcano is categorized as quite dangerous. It is still active with several million people living in the vicinity, and has proven prone to eruptions of the most violent type. Still, we figured we’d take our chances that it wouldn’t erupt for the two nights we were in town. Besides, monitoring volcanoes is much more advanced these days, and we’re smart enough to trust in modern science.
You may think that this post is riddled with typos (and it might very well be), but there is a difference between Pompei and Pompeii. When referring to the current, modern-day city, it’s spelled Pompei, but the ancient city is Pompeii. Pompei with one “i” doesn’t have much to speak of in regards to tourism. Outside the train station, the main street is lined with shops and pricey restaurants leading to a large town square and church. We walked in the opposite direction to get to our AirBNB, an apartment between the center of town and the archaeological ruins of Pompeii. Our elderly host greeted us, explaining all the house rules and asking us about our travels and preferred breakfast time. All in fast, bubbling Italian. He was friendly enough, but didn’t seem to accept that we couldn’t also speak Italian. We managed to communicate what time we wanted breakfast, and that was good enough for everyone. The next morning, breakfast came on time despite the language barrier, consisting of copious amounts of fruit, sweet jams, and donuts. Blood sugar through the roof, we set off to explore Pompeii with two “i”’s.
The site of the archaeological ruins is much larger than I imagined. I was picturing some ruins and a short main street whenever I imagined Pompeii. I figured there would be a few buildings still standing, some plaster casts of victims, and a few artifacts. In my extremely limited experience, Roman ruins weren’t too expansive, and the largest collection of them I’d seen was probably the Roman Forum in Rome. Approaching the entrance to the ruins of Pompeii, I was shocked at how wrong I was.
In typical Roman fashion, Pompeii is quite well-organized and follows a logical grid-plan, covering roughly 170 acres. Most tourists only cover the first area due to time constraints, but as we had the whole day, we were able to go deep into the city and lose the crowds. After purchasing tickets at the ticket counter, we popped in Rick Steves’ audio tour to get started, crossing an entry bridge into the city through the west gate. Adding to the atmosphere, a pack of local dogs raced passed us at top speed, darting between tourists and leaping over crumbled stone pillars. Before following the loose canines, Clayton and I dipped into a small museum near the entrance. There is a much larger museum in Naples that houses most of the artifacts recovered from Pompeii including mosaics, statues, and pottery, but our Italy itinerary hadn’t included Naples this trip. Still, the small museum within Pompeii was fascinating in and of itself. We saw reconstructed mosaics, tools, jewelry, and pottery. We encountered our first plaster casts of victims, and no matter how many times you see pictures of them in textbooks, there is nothing quite like seeing the contorted forms in person. These casts were made by filling out the hollow spaces left by the decay of bodies with plaster before digging them out. Adults cradled children in vain hopes to protect them. Several had mouths open in fear and agony. Some looked like they were simply asleep. There weren’t just humans either – we saw several casts of dogs. Whenever we happened upon more plaster casts throughout the city, it was always a sobering experience.
Our audio tour took us through the most famous sites of the city, including the forum, House of the Faun (named such for a recovered statue), House of the Tragic Poet, House of the Vettii, and Temple of Apollo to name a few. Most of these houses were houses of the wealthy, and their large layouts and remaining paintings and mosaics were indications of relative wealth of the time. We met up with some archaeologists who were hard at work restoring some mosaics in a fancy entryway, and we felt lucky to witness their work. These nobler houses weren’t sectioned off into a separate, posh part of the city. In fact, the wealthier citizens lived side-by-side with citizens who weren’t quite as well off. The homes were squeezed rather tightly together, and the narrow boulevards would have been packed with people bustling to and fro, merchants selling wares, and even chariots pushing through. Fascinatingly, the streets still had the evidence of hundreds of years of chariots in the form of two deep grooves going up the center. We could even see where they were in the process of “repaving” a street when Vesuvius blew, evident when a street suddenly had those grooves disappear.
Not all of the buildings lining the streets were houses, of course. There was evidence of bars, bakeries, and my favorite, the “fast food” joints. Many of Pompeii’s citizens didn’t bother cooking in their own cramped homes, and instead opted to eat out. These food vendors are easily recognizable – the front of the building is a large counter with large, bowl-like depressions where food was kept constantly warm. I found myself wishing that they were still up and running, but alas, we were forced to get our lunch from the central cafeteria. The pizza was decent enough, but “overpriced” is a sour seasoning.
Finished with our audio tour of the main sites, we took the afternoon to wander into less visited parts of the city. The neighborhoods did get a bit repetitive on the whole, but we followed our map of the site to take us to some of the more interesting locations on the outskirts. My personal favorite was the Villa dei Misteri, or “Villa of the Mysteries”. It’s not that out of the way, but we were surprised to be the only ones there when we visited. This is a large Roman villa technically on a road outside of the main city. It’s famous for its large, vibrant murals, most likely depicting a woman being initiated into the cult of Dionysus, the god of decadence. We saw many paintings that had survived the millennia all across the city, but these were my favorite. They were large and life-like, with a piercing red background that made the figures seem to pop out of the wall.
We went on to visit the thermal baths (not quite as impressive as those we visited in Bath, England, but still quite large), the amphitheater, the large Greek-style theater, and perhaps most interestingly, the Lupanar of Pompeii. The Lupanar Grande was the largest brothel in the city, and has ten small rooms, each with a stone bed on which mattresses were lain. Paintings depict different sexual acts, but there is also some rather crude graffiti to be found. People never change.
Although Pompeii is a city frozen in time, it’s easy to forget that this city was already an old city when it was buried. Pompeii had been well established for at least 600 years before Vesuvius erupted. To put it in perspective, 600 years ago, America hadn’t even been “discovered” yet by our favorite not-hero who would take all the credit. The Renaissance was only just reaching England. Copernicus had yet to propose a heliocentric universe. Martin Luther had yet to nail his theses to a door. You get it – 600 years is a long time. It’s all too easy to take our current situation for granted, just as the citizens of Pompeii probably did. It’s never safe to think that “it will never happen”, and we have more than enough examples of that in our past. We just need to pay attention.
As the afternoon lengthened and a light drizzle began, we continued to wander the city streets, still mesmerized. It was easy to spend the entire day exploring, and I felt bad for tourists who had to cram in what they could in one morning or just a few hours. We felt like we had seen everything we wanted to see without being rushed at all, and when we left before sunset, we were exhausted but satisfied. We stopped into a restaurant for dinner on the way home, feet throbbing. Most Italians eat dinner rather late, so we had the uncomfortable experience of being seated in an enormous restaurant all by ourselves. I learned that I absolutely do not like seafood pasta, despite mine and the chef’s best efforts. We returned to the AirBNB to prepare for the journey to Sicily the next day. Our host’s adorable black cat snuck into our room several times and reminded me of Ponder, my own black cat back home. We certainly didn’t mind showering him with attention and procrastinating on packing.
What is it about Pompeii that continues to captivate? That draws so strongly on our sympathy for these people who died almost 2000 years ago? There have been countless natural disasters throughout history, and more than enough even in our own lifetimes. There certainly have been more fatal ones. Contrary to what you’d think, only around two thousand people died in Pompeii due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Tragic, yes, but I’d always imagined thousands and thousands perishing. Most people got out of the area in time, ordering slaves and servants to stay behind and watch the houses (which is depressing on a whole other level). So what is it about this event that is so special?
Rick Steves says that the great irony of Vesuvius is that although it completely destroyed Pompeii as it was, it also preserved it for the future. It lay buried for centuries, only to be discovered again in 1748. More of it is still being carefully dug out even today. The city gives us a deeply intimate view into the lives of those who came before. I think about what we can see in Pompeii. The fast food counters, the famous “beware of dog” sign, the chariot grooves in the street… These artifacts are all so human. It’s rare that we get to feel so close to humans that lived thousands of years ago. I often myself falling into the trap of imagining people of the past as “others”, when in reality, they were just us, but then. Just like people on the opposite side of the planet with different religions and cultures have the exact same hopes and fears as we do, the history that we study is full of people just like us, living day-to-day the best they can. It’s humbling, and I hope that in two thousand years, people studying us will remember that in the end, we were just doing our best every day.