Pompeii was built on a lava spur that extends out into the plain from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, a short distance from the sea and from the River Sarno. Its history is an old one, it dates from when the Oscan’s, still occupied the area known as Campania. This spit of land would be involved in many territorial disputes as the Samites, Greeks and Etruscans all has their try at claiming dominion over this city.
Eventually, Pompeii would be absorbed into the Roman sphere of influence, but did manage to retain its commercial independence, its magistrates and it language.
But more modern times would bring a series of disasters to this area. In A.D. 62 the area of Campania, and Pompeii itself would be badly damaged by a strong earthquake and then in A.D. 79 Mount Vesuvius would bury the city in a rain of ash and cinders, killing many of the inhabitants.
Pompeii would never rise again from the ashes and the city was abandoned. The remains were discovered accidentally between The city of Pompeii has always intrigued me. I don’t know exactly why, other than to literally see a moment captured in time, a moment stilled like the hands on a clock stopped at a tragic moment.
1594 and 1600, when the architect, Domenio Fontana cut a channel in the Civita area for the waters of the river Sarno, but at that time the investigations were not continued.
It would not be until 1748 that proper excavations were started under the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, and they have continued without interruption ever since.
At first he searches were primarily for sculpture, paintings, mosaics, and other objects of artistic interest and commercial value, and the ruins themselves were frequently reburied.
Because life in Pompeii came to such an unexpected and abrupt end, it is a most unusual archaeological find in that it has captured the day-to-day life of a city. Certainly the works of art reveal a community of wealth and education, but it is in the small details such as unexpectedly preserved graffiti that offers insight into the language and manners of the Roman World in the 1st century AD.
What the visitor sees today is the final phase of the city, surrounded by walls with defensive towers and gates, and a massive gateway to the Porta Marina.
The Porta Marina dates to the 11th century BC and is one of the best preserved of the several gates that open through the city walls of Pompeii. It faces the sea, hence its name.
As an attraction, Pompeii is well designed for visitors. Most will enter through an opening in the city wall that leads you upward to a relatively modern area of ticket wickets, bookstore, souvenir shop and café. Most tours will then lead you along the well-worn path to he Porto Marina. Be careful and watch you step, these ancient stones have been polished to slippery patina that makes walking uphill a challenge.
To see all of Pompeii would take days of exploration. However, in just a couple of hours you can reasonably expect to see the Temple of Apollo, the Forum, a multi-chambered Forum Baths, and the Pistrinium (the Bakery). Unfortunately, most of the major mosaics and sculptures have been removed to a Museum and what remains is impressive but not sumptuous.
What are impressive are the day-to-day details, such as stones place in the roads that allowed pedestrians dry footing in very rainy weather. And the placement of those stones, being set to allow for chariot traffic to pass unhindered.
The Temple of Apollo has been a palace of worship dating back to the 6th century BC, and excavations hint that the present layout may have gone back as far as the 11th century BC.
The Forum was the center of this ancient city, around it stood many public buildings both civil and religious, and it was adorned with numerous monuments making it an appropriate setting for spectacles and games.
The multi-chambered Forum Baths was equally impressive. This facility was designed to allow the visitor to proceed from a changing room to a circular room for cold bathing, a frigidarium, then to a tepidarium, or warm room and finally to the calindarium with its pool for hot baths, installed in 3-4 AD.
It was the bakery that most caught my attention. The grinding wheels for the grains, made of smooth basalt from Vesuvius or one of the other volcanic areas of Campania, stand in place as if waiting for hand to turn those heavy wheels. The massive ovens and shelving areas, tell the story of a prosperous establishment. It also tells a story of innovation and engineering.
After two hours of traipsing through the ruins we, Tom and I, were more than ready for a visit to a sidewalk café offering cold drinks and a good view of the souvenir markets set up around the outside of the ancient walls. Restored by a cold drink and a short rest it was time to investigate a most unexpected part of Pompeii – a factory that hand made cameos from various kinds of shell. Workmen at the site patiently stopped their work to answer questions and then returned to the painstaking work of carving the shells into works of art. All for sale, of course, in the adjacent show room.
Pompeii is about 30 to 40 minutes drive from the port of Naples and is worth a visit whether you have two hours or two weeks. Wear good shoes, these are ancient surfaces, wear a hat and take water to keep yourself hydrated in the strong Neapolitan sunshine.