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.
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.”
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter. This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
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.
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.
A painting on plaster of a riot at the amphitheater, Pompeii. c55-79 BC. (Photo By DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images)
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.
‘The Last Day of Pompeii’, as imagined by 19th-century Russian artist Karl Briullov. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
… 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.
An erotic painting from one of the brothels in Pompeii. But, despite what you might read, there is only one securely identified brothel at Pompeii. (Photo by: Werner Forman/UIG via Getty Images)
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.
A plaster cast body of a person killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii in AD 79, on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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 History Extra in 2016