THE INTRIGUE OF POMPEII
The city of Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompei. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, was mostly destroyed and buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Researchers believe that the town was founded in the seventh or sixth century BC by the Osci or Oscans. It came under the domination of Rome in the 4th century BC, and was conquered and became a Roman colony in 80 BC after it joined an unsuccessful rebellion against the Roman Republic. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was approximately 11,000 people, and the city had a complex water system, an amphitheater, gymnasium and a port.
The eruption destroyed the city, killing its inhabitants and burying it under tons of ash. Evidence for the destruction originally came from a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from a distance and described the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, who tried to rescue citizens. The site was lost for about 1,500 years until its initial rediscovery in 1599 and broader rediscovery almost 150 years later by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. The objects that lay beneath the city have been well-preserved for centuries because of the lack of air and moisture. These artifacts provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city during the Pax Romana. During the excavation, plaster was used to fill in the voids in the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.
Pompeii has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. Today it has UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors every year.
The ruins of Pompeii are located near the modern suburban town of Pompei. It stands on a spur formed by a lava flow to the north of the mouth of the Sarno River. Today it is some distance inland, but in ancient times it would have been nearer to the coast. Pompeii is about 8 km (5.0 mi) away from Mount Vesuvius. It covered a total of 64 to 67 hectares (170 acres) and was home to approximately 11,000 to 11,500 people on the basis of household counts. It was a major city in the region of Campania.—–
The archaeological digs at the site extend to the street level of the 79 AD volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from other seismic events before the eruption. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Carbon dating has determined the oldest of these layers to be from the 8th–6th centuries BC (around the time the city was founded). The other two strata are separated either by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement, and were laid in the 4th century BC and 2nd century BC. It is theorized that the layers of the jumbled sediment were created by large landslides, perhaps triggered by extended rainfall. The town was founded around the 6th–7th century BC by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Curnae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and in fact recent excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th-century BC necropolis. Pompeii was captured for the first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse between 525 and 474 BC.
In the 5th century BC, the Samnites conquered it (and all the other towns of Campania); the new rulers imposed their architecture and enlarged the town. After the Samnite Wars, Pompeii was forced to accept the status of socium of Rome, maintaining, however, linguistic and administrative autonomy. In the 4th century BC, it was fortified. Pompeii remained faithful to Rome during the Second Punic War.
It was fed with water by a spur from Aqua Augusta built c. 20 BC by Agrippa; the main line supplied several other large towns, and finally the naval base at Misenum. The castellum in Pompeii is well preserved, and includes many details of the distribution network and its controls.
The excavated city offers a snapshot of Roman life in the 1st century, frozen at the moment it was buried on August 24, 79 AD. The forum, the baths, many houses, and some out-of-town villas like the Villa of the Mysteries remain well preserved. Details of everyday life are preserved. For example, on the floor of one of the houses (Sirico’s), a famous inscription Salve, lucru (“Welcome, profit”) indicates a trading company owned by two partners, Sirico and Nummianus (but this could be a nickname, since nummus means “coin; money”). Other houses provide details concerning professions and categories, such as for the “laundry” workers (Fullones). Wine jars have been found bearing what is apparently the world’s earliest known marketing pun, Vesuvinum (combining Vesuvius and the Latin for wine, vinum).
The numerous graffiti carved on the walls and inside rooms provides a wealth of information regarding Vulgar Latin, the form of Latin spoken colloquially rather than the literary language of the classical writers.
Pompeii underwent a vast process of infrastructural development, most of which was built during the Augustan period. These include an amphitheater, a palaestra with a central or swimming pool and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses and businesses. The amphitheater has been cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design, particularly in the area of crowd control. The aqueduct branched out through three main pipes from the Castellum Aquae, where the waters were collected before being distributed to the city; in case of extreme drought, the water supply would first fail to reach the public baths (the least vital service), then private houses and businesses, and when there would be no water flow at all, the system would fail to supply the public fountains (the most vital service) in the streets of Pompeii. The pools in Pompeii were used mostly for decoration.
The large number of well-preserved frescoes provides information on everyday life and has been a major advance in art history of the ancient world, with the innovation of the Pompeian Styles. Some aspects of the culture were distinctly erotic, including frequent use of the phallus as apotropaion or good-luck charm in various types of decoration. A large collection of erotic votive objects and frescoes were found at Pompeii. Many were removed and kept until recently in a secret at the University of Naples.
At the time of the eruption, the town may have had some 20,000 inhabitants, and was located in an area in which Romans had their holiday villas. William Abbott explains, “At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations.” It is the only ancient town of which the whole topographic structure is known precisely as it was, with no later modifications or additions. Due to the difficult terrain, it was not distributed on a regular plan as most Roman towns were, but its streets are straight and laid out in a grid in the Roman tradition. They are laid with polygonal stones, and have houses and shops on both sides of the street. It followed its decumanus and its cardo, centered on the forum. Modern archaeologists have excavated garden sites and urban domains to reveal the agricultural staples in Pompeii’s economy prior to 79 A.D. Pompeii was fortunate to have a fruitful, fertile region of soil for harvesting a variety of crops. The soils surrounding Mount Vesuvius even preceding its eruption have been revealed to have good water-holding capabilities, implying access to productive agriculture. The Tyrrhenian Sea’s airflow provided hydration to the soil despite the hot, dry climate.
The rural areas surrounding Pompeii had an abundant agricultural plot that was considered to be heavily fertile and capable of producing much larger quantities of goods than the city would need. It is speculated that much of the flat land in Campania, surrounding the areas of Pompeii was dedicated to grain and wheat production. Cereal, barley, wheat, and millet were all produced by the locals in Pompeii. These grains, along with wine and olive oil, were produced in abundance to be exported to other regions. There was evidence of wine being imported nationally from Pompeii in its most prosperous years can be found from recovered artifacts such as wine bottles in Rome. For this reason, vineyards were of utmost importance to Pompeii’s economy. Agricultural policymaker Columella suggested that each vineyard in Rome produced a quota of three cullei of wine per jugerum; otherwise the winery would be uprooted. The nutrient-rich lands near Pompeii were extremely efficient at this and were often able to exceed these requirements by a steep margin, therefore providing the incentive for local wineries to establish themselves. While wine was exported for Pompeii’s economy, the majority of the other agricultural goods were likely produced in quantities relevant to the city’s consumption. Remains of large formations of constructed wineries were found in Forum Boarium, covered by cemented casts from the eruption of Vesuvius. It is speculated that these historical vineyards are strikingly similar in structure to the modern day vineyards across Italy. Water depressions have also been found in close proximity to the wineries and served as water wells for the produce and livestock.