Your ultimate 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. Learn more about its history from two expert historians
How and when was Pompeii destroyed?
The only eyewitness account of the eruption that we have comes from Pliny the Younger (the nephew of naturalist and naval commander Pliny the Elder), via letters that he wrote 17 years after the disaster, describing the eruption of Vesuvius. And it is from him that we get a timeline of what happened during those fateful days. There had been earth tremors in the days leading up to the eruption, but no one seems to have paid much attention to them. Vesuvius had last erupted in something like 1600 BC, so when it emitted a huge plume of ash and volcanic debris into the sky, no one had any idea what was happening.
Over the next 18 hours or so, pumice stones rained down from the cloud, filling the streets and houses, and by the next morning, the huge column of ash had collapsed, and incredibly fast-moving clouds of stone and ash and gases (known as pyroclastic surges) started racing down the sides of Vesuvius at speeds of 200mph and temperatures of 300°C. Anyone who hadn’t left Pompeii by that point would have had no hope of survival, and it is this that finally buried and destroyed the city.
The precise date of the eruption is harder to pin down and there is still much debate. What we have of Pliny’s original letters are various copies created by scribes in the medieval period. The best surviving copy gives the date of the eruption as 24 August, and this is the date that is most often used. But there are other copies that cite different dates: 24 October, 20 November and 3 December are among other dates given.
In fact, the archaeological evidence suggests that the eruption took place later in the year. Carbonised pomegranates – a fruit that ripens in the autumn – have been found in both Pompeii and at Oplontis, just outside the city, and there is evidence of grape pressing taking place, an activity that occurred later in the year. So, it’s likely that the eruption happened later than August, but we simply don’t know for sure, other than that it happened in AD 79.
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
How many people died as a result of the eruption?
This is another question that is difficult to answer accurately. So far, around 1,200 skeletons have been found, and of those, 100 or so have been made into plaster casts. It’s thought that the city’s population was probably around 10,000–15,000 at the time of the eruption, so, considering the 1,200 bodies we do have and the fact that around a third of Pompeii is yet to be excavated, it does seem that a lot of people did manage to get away.
Do we know anything about the survivors of Pompeii?
A few years ago, a study was carried out to try and match family names that were distinctive to Pompeii and Herculaneum and see if these names showed up elsewhere after AD 79. It was by no means a foolproof method, but it is the best attempt to date to try and trace survivors of the eruption. What the study found was that those who did escape didn’t go very far. There are name correlations in Cumae, just west of Naples, and a lot of people seem to have settled in the Bay of Naples area – only around 30 miles from Pompeii. Today it’s a different story: when I lived in Pompeii, I received letters telling me that in the event of an eruption, residents would be transported up to Genoa, in the north of Italy.
What happened in terms of rescue work after the disaster?
We know from some of the sources that the new Roman emperor, Titus, sent commissioners to Pompeii to redistribute the land of those who had died without heirs to survivors who had lost everything. At that point, there was no hope of finding anyone alive in the city, but they seem to have had a plan for what happened next. In his 80-book Roman History (written between AD 211-233), the historian Cassius Dio stated that Titus visited the disaster site in person, much like a president or prime minister might do today, distributing money and showing great compassion to the victims of the eruption.
We don’t have any official evidence to suggest that they dug for bodies or survivors, but we can see that people did return to the site and tunnelled into their houses, probably to retrieve possessions. Excavations at Pompeii have revealed piles of goods, such as silverware, stashed in corners of rooms – probably gathered into one place to make it easier to return and collect them later.
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On one house there is an inscription that reads Domus Pertusa, which roughly translates to ‘house brought out’. This could suggest that somebody had come back for their items, or that people were routinely going through houses to try and rob people of their possessions. The Domus Pertusa label could be saying, ‘I’ve taken all there is from this one; don’t bother going in’.
How important was Pompeii before the eruption?
I was brought up with the idea that Pompeii was just another run-of-the mill Roman town. But the more I’ve worked there and the more I’ve travelled around the former Roman empire, the more I think it was pretty special. It was a working town, for sure. But the level of craftsmanship of the possessions we’ve found, from pots and pans to mosaics, and the overall infrastructure, make me think it was more than your average working town.
We can see that people did return to the site and tunnelled into their houses, probably to retrieve possessions. Excavations at Pompeii have revealed piles of goods, such as silverware, stashed in corners of rooms
Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other sites destroyed in AD 79 give us an incredible window into daily life and the sorts of trades in place there. We have launderettes, shops, bars, and the sorts of objects in those places, as well as houses with their own workshops for glass and metal making, for example. And we can see glimpses of the lives of enslaved people in the town; people who were usually ‘invisible’ but whose shackles have survived.
And it’s all on a huge scale and helps us understand life in the first century AD across all social classes. So, the importance of Pompeii for historians is unquestionable, but as to whether we would know about the town had the eruption not happened is a question that can’t be answered really.
Were the lives of Pompeii’s women any different to those in, say, Rome?
I don’t think so. I think the role of Roman women is often misunderstood anyway; if you were to just read the sources, you would get the impression that they were either promiscuous or domestic goddesses. But in fact, when you scratch the surface, we can see that women were working. If they ran a household, they needed to be literate and have numeracy skills in order to manage the house accounts. And some did own their own businesses.
One Pompeiian woman we do know about was Julia Felix, a freed woman who was not a member of the elite. She bought two insular blocks, which usually contain around nine or 10 houses, and joined them together – something that was unheard of – to make one of the largest properties in Pompeii. I really like her – she seems to have been a savvy entrepreneur without the backing of family money.
In AD 62, probably after the earthquake believed to have hit Pompeii that year, she advertised on the side of her building for respectable people to rent a series of shops and upstairs apartments in her property. So, she obviously needed to make money and took it upon herself to start a business renting out her own property. And this is quite unusual, as Roman law usually stated that women needed a guardian or a man to be involved.
Did the memory of Pompeii fade after the eruption?
I don’t think it ever vanished from memory. There’s a map known as the Peutinger Table that is a 12th-century copy of a fourth-century AD Roman map, and on it are the names of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis (a possible imperial villa between Herculaneum and Pompeii) and Stabiae, which is further round the coast. All these names were still appearing 300 years after the eruption – people might not have known their exact location, but they would have known the area.
How much more is there still to discover at Pompeii?
There is still a third of the city – 22 hectares – that is still completely buried by volcanic material. Recently, work has been taking place on the edge of this unexcavated area, but there would never be another massive excavation to uncover the buried third without a very good cause for conservation; we need to manage what we already have on display. Pompeii went through a bad period of neglect, but, thanks to a huge sum of money from the EU, a massive conservation campaign is now underway to try to look after what has been excavated and to leave that remaining third for future generations.
Ideas of what we can learn from the site have changed a lot since the site’s rediscovery in 1748. We’re now looking at the DNA of the skeletons, as well as analysing food residue in ceramic vessels found in many of the city’s bars. For years, it was thought that only dried food was kept in these pots, but a couple of years ago bones were discovered, indicating that hot foods – a pork and fish stew – were being served in bars, which was against Roman law.
Fifty years ago, we might not have had the technology to have found this sort of thing out, so to leave a third of the city unexcavated is a good thing; it allows future generations with new technologies to ask more probing questions. So, although I’m dying to know what’s beneath the last section, I’m okay with it not being dug in my lifetime.
Sophie Hay is an archaeologist specialising in Pompeii. She is currently writing a book on female archaeologists involved in the city’s excavations, as well as working for the Archaeological Park of Pompeii
This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
8 facts you probably didn't know about Pompeii
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.
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.
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.
- Listen | Daisy Dunn revisits the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum
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. The above facts were first published by HistoryExtra in 2016
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