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One of the best known ancient sites in the world, Pompeii was an ancient Roman city founded in the 6th to 7th century BC and famously destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

History of Pompeii

It’s thought Pompeii was established sometime around 450BC. Following the Social Wars, Pompeii became a Roman colony, and quickly assimilated into the Roman world, adopting Latin as the dominant language and becoming Roman citizens. The fertile soil of the area, combined with the desirability of the Bay of Naples as a location meant that the town grew prosperous and wealthy, becoming a retreat for the wealthy, as well as an important port.

In 62AD, the area was hit by a major earthquake and a programme of rebuilding was initiated, including the repair and restoration of frescoes and the redesign of some of the major public buildings in the city. Despite this, the archaeological evidence suggests that Pompeii was flourishing at this point, able to afford to rebuild and also complete extra building projects, including new City Baths.

In 79AD, the town was buried under a layer of lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone) 6 or 7 metres deep following the eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius, Unlike the nearby town of Herculaneum, this meant that the city was buried in motion, and has provided historians and archaeologists with a fascinating glimpse into everyday Roman life, from social conventions and class structures to ancient graffiti.

The full horror Pompeii’s inhabitants must have faced is also apparent – they were buried alive instantly in a wave of super-heated volcanic ash, their faces frozen in screams, their bodies curled up in an attempt to shield themselves. Only just over 1000 body casts were found, suggesting that the majority of the town’s 20,000 inhabitants managed to escape with their valuables in the first 18 hours of the eruption.

Pompeii was ‘rediscovered’ in the 16th century during the digging of a canal, and excavations began in the 18th century. About 2/3rds of the original site has now been excavated, and archaeologists are still working on the remaining areas.

Pompeii today

There’s no denying the world’s enduring fascination with Pompeii – to say it’s like stepping back in time is something of a cliche, but in the case of Pompeii, it’s hard to describe the experience in any other way. There’s a sense that you’re intruding on a different world – houses, temples, shops, cafes and even a brothel are all visible today, in amazingly good condition. Some of the frescoes found are phenomenal.

Expect to spend at least half a day wandering – wear comfy shoes and it’s sensible to invest in an audio guide (albeit at additional cost) in order to understand and appreciate where you are, and what function some of the buildings and areas served in Roman life. A hat is also a must in the summer as there’s limited shade and it can get extremely hot. During the summer, the Pompeii Archaeological Superintendence organises evening tours.

Amongst Pompeii’s most interesting sites are; the public marketplace or ’Forum’, a large home known as the House of the Vettii and the Basilica, which was a central building in the city. The artefacts found at the site are also fascinating, with many domestic objects and even the preserved bodies of people who perished in the eruption.

Pompeii Amphitheatre is also staggeringly impressive, it being a 20,000 seat structure and the first ever stone amphitheatre. In 59AD, the Emperor Nero banned games in this sports venue for a whole ten years, after a giant brawl between fans of Pompeii and those of neighbouring Nuceria.

Many of the finds from Pompeii are housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

Getting to Pompeii

Pompei is a modern day Italian town: there’s a train station with regular departures to Salerno and Torre Annunziata, where you’ll need to change trains if you’re heading to or from Naples, or you can stop at Pompei Scavi, which is on the mainline between Naples and Sorrento, and is much closer to the archaeological site itself. Buses 5000 and 5020 also run from Naples and stop in the centre of town.

The archaeological site is just off the E45 and SS18 if you’re heading into Pompei: there’s some parking nearby but it gets extremely busy. Pompeii is about a 25 minute drive or a 35 minute train from Naples.

Pompeii history

Pompei was founded in the VII century B.C. by the Oscans who settled on the slopes of Vesuvius and in an area not far from the river Sarno. The first settlements are dating back to the Iron Age (IX-VII centuries B.C.).
In that period Pompei was an important trade centre so it became object of the Greek, Etruscan and Samnites expansionistic aims. Afterwards in the third century B.C. Pompeii was conquered by the Romans and in a short time it became very important for the Roman trade exchanges as it started to export wine and olive oil even to Provencal and Spain.
This was an excellent architectural period, the rectangular and triangular forums were rebuilt, and important buildings such as Jupiter&rsquos Temple, the Basilica and the House of the Faun were erected.
To this same period belongs the Temple of Iside which is clear evidence of the trade and cultural exchanges between Pompeii and the middle east countries. Under the Roman domination Pompeii became at first a &ldquomunicipium&rdquo and then a colony &ldquoVeneria Cornelia Pompeianorum&rdquo, as it was ruled by the dictator Publio Cornelio Silla who conquered it in 89 B.C.
In this period Pompeii was inevitably influenced by the Roman architectural and cultural styles and during the imperial age many families belonging to the Roman patriciate sojourned in Pompeii where they built the Temple of Augustus and the Building of Eumachia.
In 62 or 63 A.D. Pompei suffered heavy damages from an earthquake and the Roman senate ordered immediately the reconstruction of the town, but this was in vain because, while many works were under construction, on August 24th 79 a tremendous eruption of the volcano Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplonti.
Pompeii was completely submerged by a flow of lava which cancelled all forms of life.

Vesuvius: FROM 79 A.D. TO NOWADAYS

Besides the eruption of 79 A.D. another devastating eruption took place in 472, but it was only after the eruption in 1631 that the authorities and the experts understood the real danger represented by Vesuvius.
For the first time the local authorities enacted an edict in which the population was invited to evacuate the area in the presence of an active signal of the volcano.

The last eruption happened in 1944. Today, even though people are fully aware of the of the gravity of the situation, the area around the volcano is densely populated and as of today political have yet to prepare complete precautionary measures which involves the inhabitants, schools, scientific departments.

History of Pompeii in Pre-Roman Times

The Oscans founded Pompeii as early as the 7th or 8th century BCE. Once a coastal town with access to fresh water, the city held a prime location as a vibrant Mediterranean trade hub. During this period, Pompeii enjoyed steady growth over several centuries of massive prosperity. Therefore, the Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites all wanted it for themselves.

Within just two centuries of development, officials of Pompeii allied with the powerful Greek Cumaeans from the shore west of Vesuvius. Control over the Mediterranean waters around Naples vacillated between the Etruscans and the Greeks, and the Etruscans successfully conquered Pompeii. The resort town remained under Etruscan control for 51 years until 474 BC when Greek forces liberated Pompeii at the Battle of Cumae.

Dating the Eruption and an Eyewitness

Romans watched the spectacular eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, many from a safe distance, but one early naturalist named Pliny (the Elder) watched while he helped evacuate refugees on the Roman warships under his charge. Pliny was killed during the eruption, but his nephew (called Pliny the Younger), watching the eruption from Misenum about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away, survived and wrote about the events in letters that form the basis of our eye-witness knowledge about it.

The traditional date of the eruption is August 24th, supposed to have been the date reported in Pliny the Younger's letters, but as early as 1797, the archaeologist Carlo Maria Rosini questioned the date on the basis of the remains of fall fruits he found preserved at the site, such as chestnuts, pomegranates, figs, raisins, and pine cones. A recent study of the distribution of the wind-blown ash at Pompeii (Rolandi and colleagues) also supports a fall date: the patterns shows that prevailing winds blew from a direction most prevalent in the fall. Further, a silver coin found with a victim in Pompeii was struck after September 8th, AD 79.

If only Pliny's manuscript had survived! Unfortunately, we only have copies. It's possible that a scribal error crept in regarding the date: compiling all the data together, Rolandi and colleagues (2008) propose a date of October 24th for the eruption of the volcano.


Phallus relief from Pompeii, c. 1–50 AD

Bronze 'flying phallus' amulet (1st C BC)

The phallus (the erect penis), whether on Pan, Priapus or a similar deity, or on its own, was a common image. It was not seen as threatening or even necessarily erotic, but as a ward against the evil eye. [1] [2] The phallus was sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes). Phallus-animals were common household items. Note the child on one of the wind chimes.

Wall mural of Mercury/Priapus

Wall Painting of Priapus, House of the Vetti

A wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the god of sex and fertility, with his oversized erection, was covered with plaster (and, as Karl Schefold explains (p. 134), even the older reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened on request) and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall. [3] The Romans believed that he was a talisman protecting the riches of the house.

The second image, from Schefold, Karl: Vergessenes Pompeji: Unveröffentlichte Bilder römischer Wanddekorationen in geschichtlicher Folge. München 1962., with its much more brilliant colors, has been used to retouch the younger, higher resolution image here.

Fresco from the largest Pompeii brothel

An erotic wall painting on the walls of a small room at the side of the kitchen from The House of the Vettii, Pompeii.(cf. "Erotic Art in Pompeii" by Michael Grant, p. 52)

It is unclear whether the images on the walls were advertisements for the services offered or merely intended to heighten the pleasure of the visitors. As previously mentioned, some of the paintings and frescoes became immediately famous because they represented erotic, sometimes explicit, sexual scenes.

One of the most curious buildings recovered was in fact a Lupanar (brothel), which had many erotic paintings and graffiti inside. The erotic paintings seem to present an idealised vision of sex at odds with the reality of the function of the lupanar. The Lupanare had 10 rooms (cubicula, 5 per floor), a balcony, and a latrina. It was not the only brothel. The town seems to have been oriented to a warm consideration of sensual matters: on a wall of the Basilica (sort of a civil tribunal, thus frequented by many Roman tourists and travelers), an immortal inscription tells the foreigner: If anyone is looking for some tender love in this town, keep in mind that here all the girls are very friendly (loose translation). Other inscriptions reveal some pricing information for various services: Athenais 2 As, Sabina 2 As (CIL IV, 4150), The house slave Logas, 8 As (CIL IV, 5203) or Maritimus licks your vulva for 4 As. He is ready to serve virgins as well. (CIL IV, 8940). The amounts vary from one to two As up to several Sesterces. In the lower price range the service was not more expensive than a loaf of bread.

Prostitution was relatively inexpensive for the Roman male but it is important to note that even a low priced prostitute earned more than three times the wages of an unskilled urban labourer. [ citation needed ] However, it was unlikely a freed woman would enter the profession in hopes for wealth because most women declined in their economic status and standard of living due to demands on their appearance as well as their health.

Prostitution was overwhelmingly an urban creation. Within the brothel it is said prostitutes worked in a small room usually with an entrance marked by a patchwork curtain. Sometimes the woman's name and price would be placed above her door. Sex was generally the cheapest in Pompeii, compared to other parts of the Empire. [ citation needed ] All services were paid for with cash.

These frescoes are in the Suburban Baths of Pompeii, near the Marine Gate. [4]

These pictures were found in a changing room at one side of the newly excavated Suburban Baths in the early 1990s. The function of the pictures is not yet clear: some authors say that they indicate that the services of prostitutes were available on the upper floor of the bathhouse and could perhaps be a sort of advertising, while others prefer the hypothesis that their only purpose was to decorate the walls with joyful scenes, as these were in Roman culture. The most widely accepted theory, that of the original archaeologist, Luciana Jacobelli, is that they served as reminders of where one had left one's clothes. [ citation needed ]

Collected below are high-quality images of erotic frescoes, mosaics, statues, and other objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

A brief guide to Pompeii, plus 8 fascinating facts about the ancient Roman city

After the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was lost for centuries. Today, it is one of the world's most famous – and fascinating – archaeological sites. Here, historian Dominic Sandbrook explores how in AD 79 Vesuvius erupted with devastating results, while Dr Joanne Berry shares eight lesser-known Pompeii facts…

This competition is now closed

Published: August 24, 2020 at 10:32 am

On the afternoon of 24 August 79, the commander of the Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder, was at home in Misenum at the northern end of the Bay of Naples. He was working on some papers after a leisurely lunch when his sister noticed “a cloud of unusual size and appearance”, rising above the peak of Vesuvius. Pliny immediately called for a boat but, even before he had set out, a message arrived from the town at the foot of the mountain where residents were terrified of the looming cloud.

By the time Pliny had crossed the bay to the town of Stabiae, it was obvious that something terrible was afoot. Vesuvius now seemed ablaze, wrote Pliny’s nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, while “ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames”. With ash filling the sky, the unnatural darkness seemed “blacker and denser than any ordinary night”.

Barely three miles away on the volcano’s fertile slopes stood Pompeii. That wealthy town was no stranger to disaster – it had been damaged by an earthquake just 17 years earlier – but as the ash began to fall, it was obvious that this was far, far worse.

  • Read more about the eruption that covered Pompeii and Herculaneum under a layer of pumice and ash, providing a remarkable window into ancient Roman life

Almost certainly thousands were killed, though the true figure will never be known. Even at Misenum, where the elder Pliny’s relatives waited in vain for his return – he collapsed and died in the chaos – utter panic took hold. “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives,” wrote Pliny’s nephew. It felt, he added, as though “the whole world was dying with me, and I with it.”

A quick guide to Pompeii

Where is Pompeii?

Pompeii is on the west coast of Italy near modern-day Naples

What was the volcano, and when did the eruption bury Pompeii?

Mount Vesuvius erupted in August AD 79

How many died at Pompeii?

Almost certainly thousands were killed, though the true figure will never be known

When was Pompeii rediscovered?

Historian Daisy Dunn explains

In the late 16th century, an Italian architect stumbled upon the ruins of Pompeii while digging a canal, but little came of the discovery. It would be another 150 years before excavating the buried city began in earnest. At the instruction of the future King Charles III of Spain, excavations got underway in 1748 by a Spanish military engineer named Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre – the man who had been digging at Herculaneum a decade earlier. But the initial priority was not to protect and stabilise the structures found under the thick layers of ash, but to lift treasures or valuable art objects.

Only when Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge in the 1860s did the excavations become more systematic. It was Fiorelli who took plaster casts of the voids in the ash left by the bodies of the dead. The findings at Pompeii and Herculaneum inspired new forms of archaeology and influenced new waves of interest in ancient worlds across Europe.

Recently, an area of north Pompeii has been excavated for the first time as part of the 105-million (around £96 million) Great Pompeii Project. This latest series of investigations has uncovered remarkable mosaics, wall paintings, and a colourfully decorated bar used for serving hot food. With a significant proportion of Pompeii still to be excavated, we may hope to see even more ancient works of art in the future.

Here, Roman historian and archaeologist Dr Joanne Berry shares eight lesser-known facts about the city on the west coast of Italy near modern-day Naples…

Pompeii is not frozen in time, nor is it a perfect time-capsule

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 caused vast damage – fires were started, rooftops were swept away, columns collapsed. Most of the inhabitants of the town escaped into the surrounding countryside (although we have no idea how many of those died there). They took with them small valuables, like coins and jewellery, and lamps. Organic materials, like sheets, blankets, clothes, curtains, were mostly destroyed.

In the years and centuries after the eruption, salvagers explored Pompeii, tunnelling through walls and removing valuable objects. The earliest formal excavations in the 18th century were little more than treasure-hunting exercises, which means that records of finds are poor or non-existent. There is also evidence that some finds, such as wall-paintings and pottery, were deliberately destroyed by the excavators because they were not considered to be of high enough quality! All these factors make Pompeii a challenging site to study – much like most other archaeological sites.

What was life like for the Romans who lived in Pompeii, pre-eruption? Not that different from our own, as Mary Beard reveals in her A to Z of life in the ancient town of Pompeii…

Pompeii resembled a giant building site

It is commonly known that in AD 63 a massive earthquake caused major damage in the town. Scholars now agree, however, that this was merely one in a series of earthquakes that shook Pompeii and the surrounding area in the years before AD 79, when Vesuvius erupted. It is clear that some buildings were repaired several times in this period.

In fact, Pompeii must have resembled a giant building site, with reconstruction work taking place in both public buildings and private houses. In the past scholars argued that the town was abandoned by the wealthy in this period and taken over by a mercantile class. These days we see the scale of rebuilding as a sign of massive investment in the city – possibly sponsored by the emperor – by inhabitants who sought to improve their urban environment.

The amphitheatre was colourfully decorated…

When the amphitheatre was first excavated in 1815, a remarkable series of frescoes [mural paintings] adorned its parapet wall. There were large painted panels of wild animals, such as a bear and a bull facing off, tied together by a length of rope so that neither could escape the other, and a referee standing between two gladiators. On either side of these, smaller panels depicted winged victories, or candelabra-lit spaces.

The frescoes probably were painted on the podium wall in the period immediately before the eruption. Within a few months of their excavation, however, they had been completely destroyed by frost, leaving no traces of their presence that can be seen by visitors today. Luckily for us, drawings had been made of them when they were excavated, so we have some idea of the original colourful decoration of the amphitheatre.

… as was the House of Julia Felix

A series of frescos were found in the atrium of the Praedium [aka ’Estate] of Julia Felix that seem to depict scenes of everyday life in the forum (the political centre of the Roman city). Twelve fragments of these frescoes survive: one depicts a beggar being offered something by a woman wearing a green tunic, and another shows a boy being whipped – this sometimes has been considered evidence of the presence of a school in the forum area.

Other fragments show a man cleaning another man’s shoes, a cobbler, merchants displaying their wares to two women, and figures selling bread, fruit and vegetables, and what look like socks. In one scene a customer holds the hand of a child. Horses, mules, and carts, and possibly a chariot can be identified in other scenes

In one important fragment, a banner has been strung from two equestrian statues and four male figures have stopped to read it, or to have it read to them (since we don’t know for sure how many people in Pompeii could read) All these scenes remind us that the Forum was not just the political centre of the Roman city – it was its economic and social heart too.

Listen: Daisy Dunn revisits the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

The Cult of Isis was particularly popular at Pompeii

In addition to the famous Temple of Isis [dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis], images and statuettes of Isis have been found in more than 20 houses, often alongside figurines of more traditional Roman gods and goddesses.

Although Roman writers were suspicious of the Cult of Isis, which they thought threatened traditional Roman values like honour and duty to the state the Temple of Isis at Pompeii had existed at Pompeii for around 200 years before the eruption of AD 79 – which means that the Cult had a long and established following at Pompeii. Followers of Isis believed that she offered the possibility of life after death, but she was also patron goddess of sailors. This surely explains her popularity at Pompeii, which was located by the sea.

The Cult of Isis attracted women, freedmen, and slaves to its ranks, but its rites and ceremonies remain unknown.

Despite what you might read, there is only one securely identified brothel (or ‘Lupanar’) at Pompeii

It is located on a narrow, winding street in the centre of the town, and it is today one of the most visited tourist attractions in the excavations. We know it was a brothel from its layout (it is divided into cubicles, each with a masonry bed), erotic wall paintings, and multiple explicit graffiti that list sexual acts and prices.

Scholars have suggested that other ‘brothels’ were located in houses with erotic wall paintings, but in actual fact erotic paintings are ubiquitous at Pompeii and are not associated with the sale of sex. This does not mean that prostitution only took place in the Lupanar, however. Advertisements for prostitutes have been found in the streets of tombs that surround the town, and bars probably sold sex as well as food and wine.

The plastercasts of the victims of the eruption are the most famous artefacts from Pompeii. But did you know that archaeologists also make plastercasts of root cavities in gardens to determine what flowers, fruits and vegetables were being grown in AD 79?

This technique was first pioneered by Wilhelmina Jashemski (1910–2007), an American archaeologist who studied every garden in Pompeii. One large garden was found to be a vineyard – there were 2,014 root cavities that were found to have been made by vines, and additional cavities from the wooden stakes that supported these plants. The vineyard had been divided into four parts by intersecting paths, and trees had been growing along the paths and at intervals through the vineyard. Vegetables seem to have been grown under the vines too. Other gardens grew vines on a smaller scale, and vegetables and fruit and nut trees were common.

Although some of the produce must have been consumed by the inhabitants of the houses concerned, it is likely that much was destined for sale at market.

Waiting for a legal case to be heard in the Basilicain the Forum of Pompeii must have been long and boring, if the evidence of nearly 200 scribblings found on its walls is anything to go by

Some people simply scratched their names and the date, just like modern graffiti. Others used this public venue (used for law courts, administration and business transactions) to vent their bile (‘Chios, I hope your piles irritate you so they burn like they’ve never burned before!’) or make accusations (‘Lucilla was making money from her body’, and ‘Virgula to her bloke Tertius: you’re a dirty old man!’).

Some graffiti were started in one hand, but finished in another: a slave called Agatho starts to ask something of the goddess Venus his sentence is finished by someone else who writes ‘I ask that he perish’.

Some of those waiting seem to have resorted to playing games: a remarkable graffito records the names of three men playing ‘Trigon’, a game that involved players throwing multiple balls at each other. Another man is designated as score-keeper, and one is tasked with fetching the balls. Clearly the Basilica was a lively spot!

Dr Joanne Berry is a lecturer in ancient history at Swansea University. She is author of The Complete Pompeii (Thames and Hudson, 2007, reprinted in paperbook in 2012), co-author of The Complete Roman Legions (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2015) and the founder of Blogging Pompeii, a news and discussion site for Pompeii and the archaeological sites of the Bay of Naples.

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016

Stories from graffiti

The preservation of graffiti on the walls of Pompeii’s buildings also provides historians with details of the sex trade. Most of it is extremely graphic. It includes information on specific services and prices, clients’ appraisals of certain women and their abilities (or lack thereof), and some sexual advice.

Some graffiti are straight to the point:

Others are advertisements:

Euplia was here
with two thousand
beautiful men

Euplia sucks for five dollars*

Often the names of slaves and, by default, sex workers, had Greek origins. The name “Euplia”, for example, comes from a Greek word meaning “fair voyage”. Sex workers’ names sometimes denoted the function or physical features of the individual in question. In this case, Euplia promised her clients a fair voyage.

Graffiti also attests to male sex workers in Pompeii. As with the writings concerning women, this graffiti lists specific services offered and sometimes prices. As freeborn women were not permitted to have intercourse with anyone but their husbands, the clients who accessed male sex workers were almost exclusively men. The sexual mores of ancient Rome, catered for male-to-male sexual encounters if certain protocols were maintained (a citizen could not be penetrated, for example).

The few literary records that suggest there may have been female clients of sex workers are questionable, as they were usually written for satiric or comedic purposes. Still, it would be naïve to discount instances of wealthy, freeborn women accessing male sex workers or household slaves.

Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that male clients did not seek other men with whom they could participate in acts deemed socially unacceptable (essentially acts in which the citizen male would occupy a submissive role).

Stories From Graffiti

The preservation of graffiti on the walls of Pompeii’s buildings also provides historians with details of the sex trade. Most of it is extremely graphic. It includes information on specific services and prices, clients’ appraisals of certain women and their abilities (or lack thereof), and some sexual advice.

Some graffiti are straight to the point:

Others are advertisements:

Euplia was here
with two thousand
beautiful men

Or a list of prices for various services.

Often the names of slaves and, by default, sex workers, had Greek origins. The name “Euplia”, for example, comes from a Greek word meaning “fair voyage”. Sex workers’ names sometimes denoted the function or physical features of the individual in question. In this case, Euplia promised her clients a fair voyage.

Graffiti also attests to male sex workers in Pompeii. As with the writings concerning women, this graffiti lists specific services offered and sometimes prices. As freeborn women were not permitted to have intercourse with anyone but their husbands, the clients who accessed male sex workers were almost exclusively men. The sexual mores of ancient Rome, catered for male-to-male sexual encounters if certain protocols were maintained (a citizen could not be penetrated, for example).

The few literary records that suggest there may have been female clients of sex workers are questionable, as they were usually written for satiric or comedic purposes. Still, it would be naïve to discount instances of wealthy, freeborn women accessing male sex workers or household slaves.

Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that male clients did not seek other men with whom they could participate in acts deemed socially unacceptable (essentially acts in which the citizen male would occupy a submissive role).

From gorgeous artworks to grimacing corpses, archaeologists are still uncovering the truth about life—and death—in the doomed city

If you stand inside the ruins of Pompeii and listen very, very hard, you can almost hear the creaking of cart wheels, the tumult of the marketplace, the echoes of Roman voices. Few modern visitors would care to conjure the ghost city’s most striking feature, its appalling stench—togas were brightened by bleaching with sulfur fumes, animal and human waste flowed down streets whenever it rained heavily—but on this pleasantly piney day in early spring, Pompeii has that peculiar stillness of a place where calamity has come and gone. There’s a whiff of mimosa and orange blossom in the salt air until, suddenly, the wind swoops down the “Vicolo dei Balconi,” Alley of the Balconies, kicking up the ancient dust along with it.

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This article is a selection from the September 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Vesuvius engulfed Pompeii, Pliny the Younger recalled, in darkness that was "as if the light has gone out of a room that is locked and sealed." (Chiara Goia)

In A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius rumbled to life after being dormant for nearly 300 years, the alley was entombed and its balconies largely incinerated in the cascades of scorching ash and superheated toxic gases known as pyroclastic surges that brought instant death to the residents of Pompeii. Archaeologists discovered and unearthed the Vicolo dei Balconi only last year, in a part of the site called Regio V, which is not yet open to the public. The alleyway turned out to be lined with grand houses, some with intact balconies, some with amphorae—the terra-cotta containers used to hold wine, oil and garum, a sauce made from fermented fish intestines. Now, like nearly all the other scents of Rome’s classical era, the once pungent garum is virtually odorless.

Still off-limits, Regio V will someday be opened to visitors. One-third of Pompeii's 170 acres remain buried and not studied by modern researchers. (Chiara Goia)

Part of the “Grande Progetto Pompei,” or Great Pompeii Project, the $140 million conservation and restoration program launched in 2012 and largely underwritten by the European Union, the Regio V dig has already yielded skeletons, coins, a wooden bed, a stable harboring the remains of a thoroughbred horse (bronze-plated wooden horns on the saddle iron harness with small bronze studs), gorgeously preserved frescoes, murals and mosaics of mythological figures, and other dazzling examples of ancient Roman artistry.

That’s a surprisingly rich cache for what is arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world. But until now Pompeii has never been subjected to fully scientific excavation techniques. Almost as soon as the clouds of choking volcanic dust had settled, tunneling plunderers—or returning homeowners—grabbed whatever treasures they could. Even during the 1950s, the artifacts that researchers and others found were deemed more significant than the evidence of everyday life in the year 79. So far, the most explosive information to come out of this new excavation—one that will prompt textbooks to be rewritten and scholars to re-evaluate their dates—has no material value whatsoever.

One of the central mysteries of that fateful day, long accepted as August 24, has been the incongruity of certain finds, including corpses in cool-weather clothing. Over the centuries, some scholars have bent over backward to rationalize such anomalies, while others have voiced suspicions that the date must be incorrect. Now the new dig offers the first clear alternative.

Scratched lightly, but legibly, on an unfinished wall of a house that was being refurbished when the volcano blew is a banal notation in charcoal: “in [d]ulsit pro masumis esurit[ions],” which roughly translates as “he binged on food.” While not listing a year, the graffito, likely scrawled by a builder, cites “XVI K Nov”—the 16th day before the first of November on the ancient calendar, or October 17 on the modern one. That’s nearly two months after August 24, the fatal eruption’s official date, which originated with a letter by Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness to the catastrophe, to the Roman historian Tacitus 25 years later and transcribed over the centuries by monks.

A charcoal inscription, newly uncovered, resets the eruption date from August to October, solving a mystery: Why did shops stock fresh autumn fare like chestnuts? (Chiara Goia)

Massimo Osanna, Pompeii’s general director and mastermind of the project, is convinced that the notation was idly doodled a week before the blast. “This spectacular find finally allows us to date, with confidence, the disaster,” he says. “It reinforces other clues pointing to an autumn eruption: unripe pomegranates, heavy clothing found on bodies, wood-burning braziers in homes, wine from the harvest in sealed jars. When you reconstruct the daily life of this vanished community, two months of difference are important. We now have the lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Massimo Osanna is restoring public faith in Pompeii after years of neglect 3.5 million people visited in 2018, a million more in 2012. (Map by Guilbert Gates Chiara Goia)

The robust campaign that Osanna has directed since 2014 marks a new era in old Pompeii, which earlier this decade suffered visibly from age, corruption, vandalism, climate change, mismanagement, underfunding, institutional neglect and collapses caused by downpours. The most infamous occurred in 2010 when the Schola Armaturarum, a stone building that featured resplendent frescoes of gladiators, keeled over. Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s president at the time, called the incident a “disgrace for Italy.” Six years ago, Unesco, the United Nations agency that seeks to preserve the world’s most significant cultural assets, threatened to place Pompeii on its list of World Heritage sites in peril unless Italian authorities gave higher priority to protecting it.

The project has led to the opening, or reopening, of dozens of passageways and 39 buildings, including the Schola Armaturarum. “The restoration of the Schola was a symbol of redemption for Pompeii,” says Osanna, who is also a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Naples. He has assembled a vast team of more than 200 experts to conduct what he terms “global archaeology,” including not only archaeologists but also archaeozoologists, anthropologists, art restorers, biologists, bricklayers, carpenters, computer scientists, demographers, dentists, electricians, geologists, geneticists, mapping technicians, medical engineers, painters, plumbers, paleobotanists, photographers and radiologists. They’re aided by enough modern analytical tools to fill an imperial bathhouse, from ground sensors and drone videography to CAT scans and virtual reality.

The cast of a victim of the Vesuvius eruption on view in the museum of Pompeii. (Chiara Goia) The cast of a victim of the Vesuvius eruption on view in the museum of Pompeii. (Chiara Goia) The cast of a victim of the Vesuvius eruption at a site open to the public. (Chiara Goia) The cast of a victim of the Vesuvius eruption at a site open to the public. (Chiara Goia) Anthropologist Valeria Moretti cleans bones of six people found huddled together in a house in the Regio V site, still off-limits to the public. (Chiara Goia) The bones of the six victims are now kept in the Laboratory of Applied Research at Pompeii. (Chiara Goia)

At the time of the cataclysm, the city is said to have had a population of about 12,000. Most escaped. Only about 1,200 bodies have been recovered, but the new work is changing that. Excavators in Regio V recently uncovered skeletal remains of four women, along with five or six children, in the innermost room of a villa. A man, presumed to be somehow connected to the group, was found outside. Was he in the act of rescuing them? Abandoning them? Checking to see if the coast was clear? These are the sorts of riddles that have been seizing our imaginations since Pompeii was discovered.

The house in which this horror played out had frescoed rooms, suggesting that a prosperous family lived within. The paintings were preserved by the ash, streaks of which still stain the walls. Even in the current unrestored state, the colors—black, white, gray, ocher, Pompeii red, deep maroon—are astonishingly intense. As you step from room to room, over one threshold into another, finally standing in the spot where the bodies were found, the immediacy of the tragedy gives you chills.

Left: A remarkably intact terra-cotta amphora found in Regio V's House of the Garden would have held wine, olive oil or dried fruit.

Right: A 13- by 18 inch fresco, also newly uncovered, of Leda, raped by Jupiter in a swan guise, was built up from as many as six or seven layers of plaster under pigments. (Chiara Goia)

Back outside on the Vicolo dei Balconi, I walked by archaeological teams at work and came across a freshly uncovered snack bar. This mundane convenience is one of some 80 scattered through the city. The large jars (dolia) embedded in the masonry serving-counter establish that this was a Thermopolium, the McDonald’s of its day, where drinks and hot foods were served. Typical menu: coarse bread with salty fish, baked cheese, lentils and spicy wine. This Thermopolium is adorned with paintings of a nymph seated on a sea horse. Her eyes seem to be saying “Hold the fries!”—but maybe that’s just me.

As I walk the Roman street, Francesco Muscolino, an archaeologist who was kindly showing me around, points out the courtyards, election notices and, scratched into the outer wall of a home, a lewd graffito thought to be targeted at the last occupants. Though he cautions that even the Latin is practically unprintable, he tries his best to clean up the single entendre for a family readership. “This is about a man named Lucius and a woman named Leporis,” he says. “Lucius probably lived in the house and Leporis appears to have been a woman paid to do something. erotic.”

I later ask Osanna if the inscription was meant as a joke. “Yes, a joke at their expense,” he says. “It was not an appreciation of the activity.”

Osanna laughs softly at the mention of a rumor he spread to combat theft at the site, where visitors regularly attempt to make off with souvenirs. “I told a newspaper about the curse on objects stolen from Pompeii,” he says. Since then, Osanna has received hundreds of purloined bricks, fresco fragments and bits of painted plaster in packages from across the world. Many were accompanied by letters of apology claiming that the mementos had brought bad luck. A repentant South American wrote that after he pinched a stone, his family “had nothing but trouble.” An Englishwoman whose parents had pocketed a roof tile while on their honeymoon returned it with a note: “All through my childhood this piece was showcased at my home. Now that they are both dead, I want to give it back. Please, don’t judge my mother and father. They were children of their generation.”

Osanna smiles. “From the point of view of tourist psychology,” he says, “her letter is an incredible treasure.”

The smallish, roundish Osanna wears a suede jacket, a trim Vandyke beard and an air of becoming modesty. He looks faintly out of place in his office at the University of Naples, seated behind a desk and surrounded by computer monitors, with only the high-rises of the city in view and not a trace of rubble anywhere. On his desk is Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia, by Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist who took charge of the excavations in 1860. It was Fiorelli, Osanna tells me, who had liquid plaster poured into the cavities left in the volcanic ash by bodies that had long since rotted away. Once the plaster had set, workers chipped away at the encasing layers of ash, pumice and debris to remove the casts, revealing the posture, dimensions and facial expressions of Pompeiians in their final moments. To Osanna, the results—tragic figures caught writhing or gasping for breath with their hands covering their mouths—are grim reminders of the precariousness of human existence.

Osanna himself grew up near the extinct volcano Monte Vulture in the southern Italian hill town of Venosa, birthplace of the lyric poet Horace. According to local legend, Venosa was founded by the Greek hero Diomedes, King of Argos, who dedicated the city to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) to appease her after the defeat of her beloved Troy. The Romans wrenched the town from the Samnites in 291 B.C. and made it a colony.

As a child, Osanna frolicked in the ruins. “I was 7 when I found a skull in the necropolis under the medieval church in the center of town,” he recalls. “That emotional moment was when I fell in love with archaeology.” At 14, his stepfather took him to Pompeii. Osanna remembers feeling thunderstruck. He came under the spell of the ancient city. “Still, I never imagined I would someday be involved in its excavation,” he says.

He went on to earn two doctoral degrees (one in archaeology, the other in Greek mythology) study the second-century Greek geographer and travel writer Pausanias teach at universities in France, Germany and Spain and oversee the ministry of archaeological heritage for Basilicata, a region of southern Italy famous for its shrines and churches dating from antiquity to medieval times, and its 9,000-year-old cave dwellings. “Near the Bradano River is the Tavole Palatine, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera,” Osanna says. “Given that it was built in the late sixth century B.C., the structure is very well preserved.”

A recently exposed fresco shows Adonis, a Greek, with Venus, a Roman goddess. Mythology reflects political reality: Victorious Rome adopted Greek culture. (Chiara Goia)

Pompeii wasn’t so lucky. Today’s archaeological park is largely a rebuild of a rebuild. And no one in its long history rebuilt more than Amedeo Maiuri, a human dynamo, who, as superintendent from 1924 to 1961, directed digs during some of Italy’s most trying times. (During World War II, the Allied aerial assault of 1943—more than 160 bombs dropped—demolished the site’s gallery and some of its most celebrated monuments. Over the years, 96 unexploded bombs have been found and inactivated a few more are likely to be uncovered in areas not yet excavated.) Maiuri created what was effectively an open-air museum and hired a staff of specialists to continuously watch over the grounds. “He wanted to excavate everywhere,” says Osanna. “Unfortunately, his era was very poorly documented. It is very difficult to understand if an object came from one house or another. What a pity: His excavations made very important discoveries, but were carried out with inadequate instruments, using inaccurate procedures.”

After Maiuri retired, the impetus to excavate went with him.

When Osanna took over, the Italian government had slashed spending on culture to the point where ancient Pompeii was falling down faster than it could be repaired. Though the site generated more tourist revenue than any monument in Italy except the Colosseum, so little attention had been paid to day-to-day upkeep that in 2008 Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister, declared a state of emergency at Pompeii and, to stave off its disintegration, appointed Marcello Fiori as the new special commissioner. It didn’t take long for the restorer to disintegrate, too. In 2013, Fiori was indicted after he allegedly awarded building contracts inflated by as much as 400 percent spent $126,000 of taxpayers’ money on an adoption scheme for the 55 feral dogs wandering forlornly amid the ruins (about $2,300 per stray) $67,000 on 1,000 promotional bottles of wine—enough to pay the annual salary of a badly needed additional archaeologist $9.8 million in a rush job to repair seating at the city’s amphitheater, altering its historical integrity by cementing over the original stones and $13,000 to publish 50 copies of a book on Fiori’s extraordinary accomplishments.

Osanna took the job somewhat reluctantly. The archaeological site was beset by labor strife, work crews had been infiltrated by the powerful Naples Camorra mafia, buildings were crumbling at an alarming rate. To revive interest in the place and its history, Osanna mounted a popular exhibition focused on victims of the eruption, preserved in plaster. He gave visitors the opportunity to explore the site by moonlight, with guided tours, video installations and wine tastings based on an ancient Roman recipe. “It’s always difficult to change the culture,” he says. “You can achieve change, I think, step by step.”

In addition to stabilizing structures, archaeologists install extensive drainage to divert destructive rainwater. (Chiara Goia)

Having spent much of his first three years safeguarding what had already been uncovered, Osanna began to probe an untouched wedge of land in Regio V, considered the last great explorable section of the city. While bolstering the fragile walls, his team was soon disabused of the notion that Pompeii was preserved completely intact there. “We found traces of digs going back to the 1700s,” he says. “We also found a more contemporary tunnel that extended for more than 600 feet and ended in one of the villas. Evidently, tomb raiders got there first.”

The new excavation—which has also put a stop to looting—has opened a window on early post-Hellenistic culture. The entrance hall of one elegant home features the welcoming image of the fertility god Priapus, weighing his prodigious membrum virile on a scale like a prize-winning zucchini. Dominating a wall of the atrium is a stunning fresco of the hunter Narcissus leaning languidly on a block of stone while contemplating his reflection in a pool of water.

Discovered only last year, a floor mosaic of Orion turning into a constellation hints at the influence of Egypt, where the study of astronomy was revered. (Chiara Goia)

Embellished with a tracery of garlands, cherubs and grotesques, the bedroom of the same house contains a small, exquisite painting depicting the eroticized myth of Leda and the Swan. Half-nude, with dark eyes that seem to follow the observer, the Spartan queen is shown in flagrante with Jupiter disguised as a swan. The king of the gods is perched on Leda’s lap, claws sunk into her thighs, neck curled beneath her chin. Osanna says the explicit fresco is “exceptional and unique for its decisively sensual iconography.” He speculates that the owner of the house was a wealthy merchant, perhaps a former slave, who displayed the image in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the local aristocracy. “By flaunting his knowledge of the myths of high culture,” he says, “the homeowner could have been trying to elevate his social status.”

One floor design found in the House of Jupiter stumped archaeologists: A mosaic showing a winged half-man, half-scorpion with hair ablaze, suspended over a coiled snake. “As far as we knew, the figure was unknown to classical iconography,” says Osanna. Eventually he identified the character as the hunter Orion, son of the sea god Neptune, during his transformation into a constellation. “There is a version of the myth in which Orion announces he will kill every animal on Earth,” Osanna explains. “The angered goddess Gaia sends a scorpion to kill him, but Jupiter, god of sky and thunder, gives Orion wings and, like a butterfly leaving the chrysalis, he rises above Earth—represented by the snake—into the firmament, metamorphosing into a constellation.”

In the exceptionally luxurious Casa di Leda, decorations on an atrium wall include a satyr and nymph associated with the cult of Dionysus. (Chiara Goia)

Roman religious practices were evident at a villa called the House of the Enchanted Garden, where a shrine to the household gods—or lararium—is embedded in a chamber with a raised pool and sumptuous ornamentation. Beneath the shrine was a painting of two large snakes slithering toward an altar that held offerings of eggs and a pine cone. The blood-red walls of the garden were festooned with drawings of fanciful creatures—a wolf, a bear, an eagle, a gazelle, a crocodile. “Never before have we found such complex decoration within a space dedicated to worship inside a house,” marvels Osanna.

Ancient Rome

The city of Pompeii was a major resort city during the times of Ancient Rome. However, in 79 AD, disaster struck the city when it was buried under 20 feet of ash and debris from the eruption of the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii was originally settled around the 7th century BC by the Oscan peoples. The port city was in a prime location for trade as well as farming. The rich volcanic soil from earlier eruptions of Vesuvius created prime farmland for grapes and olive trees.

In the 5th century the city was conquered by the Samnites and was later taken over by the Romans. It became an official Roman colony in 80 BC called the Colonia Veneria Cornelia Pompeii.

The city of Pompeii was a popular vacation destination for the Romans. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people lived in the city. Many wealthy Romans had summer homes in Pompeii and would live there during the hot summer months.

Pompeii was a typical Roman city. On one side of the city was the forum. It was here that much of the business of the city was carried out. There were also temples to Venus, Jupiter, and Apollo near the forum. An aqueduct carried water into the city to be used in the public baths and fountains. The rich even had running water in their homes.

The people of Pompeii enjoyed their entertainment. There was a large amphitheater that could seat around 20,000 people for gladiator games. There were also a number of theatres for plays, religious celebrations, and musical concerts.

The area around Pompeii experienced frequent earthquakes. In 62 AD there was a huge earthquake that destroyed many of the buildings of Pompeii. The city was still rebuilding seventeen years later when disaster struck.

On August 24, 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted. Scientists estimate that 1.5 million tons of ash and rock shot out of the volcano every second. The ash cloud likely towered over 20 miles high above the mountain. Some people managed to escape, but most didn't. It is estimated that 16,000 people died.

Did they know what was coming?

The days prior to the eruption were recorded by a Roman administrator named Pliny the Younger. Pliny wrote that there had been several earth tremors in the days leading up to the eruption, but Roman science didn't know that earthquakes could signal the start of a volcano erupting. Even when they first saw smoke rising from the top of the mountain, they were merely curious. They had no idea what was coming until it was too late.

A Great Archeologists Find

The city of Pompeii was buried and gone. People eventually forgot about it. It wasn't discovered again until the 1700s when archeologists began to uncover the city. They found something amazing. Much of the city was preserved under the ashes. Buildings, paintings, houses, and workshops that would never have survived all these years remained intact. As a result, much of what we know about everyday life in the Roman Empire comes from Pompeii.