What was Pompeii like before the eruption of AD 79?
After coming into the Roman fold, the port town of Pompeii grew into a busy and affluent place to live. Nige Tassell reveals what life would have been like before Mount Vesuvius erupted and why Pompeiians relied on the mountain that would ultimately seal their doom
Although founded around the sixth or fifth century BC – and despite its relative proximity to Rome – the town of Pompeii didn’t actually come under Roman rule until 89 BC, when it was attacked by the general Sulla. Within a decade it had become an official colony, its assimilation into Roman ways undoubtedly accelerated by Sulla placing thousands of his war veterans, plus their families, in the town. Latin soon became the main language, while political institutions were remodelled along Roman lines.
Pompeii became an important port, with goods landing there before travelling north by road to Rome. With its narrow streets, innumerable traders and crowded taverns (not to mention the ready availability of prostitutes), Pompeii was a bustling, vibrant place – and an affluent one, too.
Its location on the Bay of Naples attracted many rich residents, with villas of significant size dotting the landscape beyond the town limits. Many were the second homes of notable persons from Rome who chose to holiday in the agreeable surroundings of the Campania region. Those who sought to settle in, or frequently visit, Pompeii were also attracted by the town being a strong cultural centre, with its numerous other open-air theatres hosting drama and its amphitheatre offering more visceral, bloodthirsty fare.
Pompeii’s relative affluence wasn’t exclusively due to its port. The local economy was strong because of the fertile agricultural land of this part of Campania. Olive groves and vineyards drew from the rich black soil, a product – ironically – of living beneath a giant volcano. What fuelled Pompeii’s prosperity would ultimately destroy it.
“A very ordinary place”
Many have regarded Pompeii as resembling something of a sleepy backwater, a notion that the classicist Professor Mary Beard has been keen to qualify. “It was in many ways a very ordinary place,” she wrote in her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile, 2008). “But it is a feature of ordinary places in Roman Italy that they had close bonds to Rome itself. They were often linked by ties of patronage, support and protection to the highest echelons of the Roman elite.”
After all, why would Pompeii be regarded as a significant outpost? Not only was this a lively, busy port bringing desirable goods into the region and beyond, but it was only 150 miles south of the capital, connected by exceedingly usable roads. Pompeii was, generally, seen as a peaceful town that had adapted well to Roman rule.
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The residents of Pompeii sent their bundles of dirty laundry – particularly their togas – to venues known as fullonicae, where the garments would be cleaned and pressed. To help brighten the whites, the laundry was soaked in urine.
Not that it didn’t have its moments. In AD 59, on the terraces of the amphitheatre, a riot broke out at the latest round of gladiatorial games. It was a particularly bloody skirmish, with the Pompeiians scrapping with people from the neighbouring town of Nuceria. The casualty toll meant this was more than just a little local difficulty; the Nucerians who’d lost their loved ones in the vicious fighting appealed for justice to the emperor Nero himself.
The peace of Pompeii would be shattered again a few years later when the town was rocked to its foundations by a major earthquake in AD 62 (sometimes recorded as having occurred in AD 63). It caused significant damage to Pompeii’s buildings, as well as claiming a sizeable loss of life, on account of it occurring on the day of a significant public feast.
Period of rebirth
A large-scale programme of rebuilding was undertaken to return Pompeii to its pre-earthquake prestige. This included restoring existing public buildings, often to a higher spec and standard than before. New structures were built, most notably the Central Baths which, aside from being designed on an impressively spacious scale, boasted distinctly modern innovations, such as glass windows and heating in the walls. Repairs meant that fresh water once again flowed from the Southern Apennine Mountains to numerous public fountains across the town, while wealthier Pompeiians paid for this water supply to be plumbed straight into their villas.
These developments meant that the townscape of Pompeii at the time Mount Vesuvius blew its top in AD 79 was a varied one – and one still in flux, in a period of rebirth. As Professor Mary Beard describes, “like most cities, ancient or modern, it was a sometimes messy amalgam of spanking-new building, esteemed antiques and artful restorations – as well as of the quaintly old-fashioned and the quietly dilapidated”.
The undertaking of these prestigious building projects suggests that Pompeii had a keenness – an impatience, even – to recover swiftly after the earthquake. This was a town that wasn’t going to be left to decline, that wasn’t content with being a shadow of its former self. Those putting their hands in their pockets to fund its rebuilding and its regeneration still held Pompeii in high regard, a place that the wealthy elite would continue to reside in or retreat to.
In this semi-frenzy to reinvent the town, little debate seemed to be held about the wisdom of doing so. The earthquake was regarded as a once-in a-lifetime occurrence at worst, and any fear of the danger posed by another natural disaster didn’t linger. And, having not roared for hundreds of years, not a second thought was given to the volcano overlooking the town. But, less than two decades after the earthquake, the region’s geology would strike again.
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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