This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
When to go
Pompeii, unlike its more famous neighbours Naples and Baiae, is often neglected by travellers. Yet, if you find yourself in Campania, it’s certainly worth a visit. The city has been much improved since the earthquake 17 years ago (new temples and a new bath complex due to open ‘soon’). A new confidence in the future exists in the city of Pompeii this year.
What to take with you
It is best to avoid Pompeii in the height of summer, and to visit in the autumn. November brings cooler weather and the olive harvest – you will be able to purchase the new crop. To dine and drink in style you might bring your own silver plate. You probably will not need a toga in Pompeii unless going for the grand formal entrance, so leave this bulky garment at home.
Most thinking on the subject of Vesuvius is that it was an active volcano but has been dormant for many years
Costs and money
Costs of necessities are not high: wine by the cup costs between 1 and 15 coins (asses) depending on the quality of the drink. You will need to get your gold and silver coins changed into smaller denominations by a local money changer to pay for goods in asses.
Every eight days there is a market in Pompeii. Also look out for the auctions, usually held in the Porticus of Concordia Augusta (Porticus of Augustan Unity), built by the priestess Eumachia in the forum. You should be able to pick up a slave or two here.
Local money changers can make financial arrangements including small loans to tide you over. For larger loans go to moneylenders such as the Sulpicii of Puteoli, who can be repaid in Rome.
Sights and activities
Beast hunts, gladiators and executions are held in the amphitheatre, while Pompeii boasts a theatre and a covered odeon for stage performances. The people of the city have an enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat, as can be seen from the amount of graffiti that records the exploits of these men. You might go to a performance of a mime and, if you are lucky, see some of Rome’s leading actors.
The city is full of children. Many learn to read in the large palaestra (gymnasium) opposite the amphitheatre, which also has its own swimming pool. It’s worth a visit just to see how the inhabitants learn their Latin.
Dangers and annoyances
All visitors to Campania are aware of the low-level dangers of earthquakes. The last big one was 17 years ago, but you will experience tremors.
Most thinking on the subject of mount Vesuvius is that it was an active volcano, like Etna in Sicily, but has been dormant for many years. Building work to restore the city continues and this is likely to be a greater nuisance than the threat of an earthquake – let alone an eruption of Vesuvius.
The best bet is to find accommodation in one of Pompeii’s larger inns. Many are located near the gates of the city – try one with outdoor dining and a shaded garden to relax in. Apartments and houses can be rented – only worth it if you’re looking for a longer stay in the city.
There are numerous bars on most of the major streets that serve up pulses and vegetables. Some may even serve hot food (which is illegal). For classier fare eat in your inn or in one of the dining rooms located in a small holding within the city itself.
Pompeii produces garum – a fish sauce used in most Roman dishes – and you will be able to compare this local variety with that imported from Spain.
Every wine can be found in Pompeii, from a cheap, local rot gut, to that of the Sorrento peninsula, to those imported from Spain and the Aegean, to the very highest quality Italian classics such as Falernian.
There are vineyards in the city at which you can try the local wines – if you’re feeling brave! Bars open at the third hour of the day but get busy from midday onwards.
Pompeii’s streets are narrow and many are closed off to vehicles altogether. The best way of getting around the city is on foot. If you have baggage, hire a porter or a donkey.
The nearby port gives visitors access to the other cities of the Bay of Naples and the islands off the coast.
Professor Ray Laurence is co-author of The City in the Roman West, c250 BC–c AD 250 (CUP, 2011) and co-editor of Rome, Pompeii and Ostia (OUP, 2011).
Nearly three million people a year visit Pompeii. There are many reasons for coming: to see plaster-cast figures of those who perished in the eruption (now thought to have occurred in November AD 79); to wander the streets of a vividly excavated Roman town; or to seek out the house of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus. This Pompeii banker’s story is told in the first volume of Cambridge Latin Studies, and his house is a pilgrimage spot for those who have grappled with the classical tongue.
Few leave Pompeii disappointed, and the size of the site means that escaping your fellow visitor is more than possible. To stand the best chance of doing so, come outside the peak summer months. May, June, September and October are the best times.
Like many popular ancient sites, Pompeii is vulnerable today, as last year’s collapse of the House of the Gladiators showed. This building’s demise provided a rallying call for those who feel conservation has been neglected in the town. Yet it remains a highlight not just of Italy – where, with Naples and the Amalfi Coast, it offers unbeatable urban, ancient and coastal attractions – but also stands out as one of Europe’s unmissable historic destinations.
Pompeii is best combined with a night or two in chaotic, crowded Naples, where the National Archaeological Museum holds many antiquities from the town itself.