Preserving the Past: Pompeii

There is perhaps no city from the ancient world more important to our understanding of antiquity than Pompeii. The burial of the city in the ash fall and pyroclastic flow from the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24, 79CE(though there is some evidence that it actually occurred in November of that year) preserved it from the ravages of time. From its discovery, excavation, and the study of what has been found has allowed us to study and understand what everyday life was like in a Roman city to a degree which would not be possible otherwise. However, the cities notoriety and subsequent popularity with tourists is threatening to do what Mt. Vesuvius was unable to.

Preserving the Past: Pompeii

Ancient Pompeii

Pompeii, located on the bay of Naples, was founded by the Oscan people in the 7th century BCE. There are observable influences from the Greeks, who had nearby colonies, the Etruscans, both of whom conquered it at various points, and the Samnites, who conquered and enlarged the city in the 5th century. Pompeii would become a socium of Rome in the 4th century after they defeated the Samnites, though it retained a certain degree of autonomy. It was one of the many cities which rebelled against Rome, demanding full citizenship, in the Social War of 91-88 BCE which led to it being conquered by the Roman General and Statesman Sulla, who later re-founded it as a Roman colony settled by his own veterans. After which the town became an important hub for trade and transport.

Among other things, Pompeii had a large amphitheater, was the home of a major gladiatorial school, had two theaters, a number of temples, baths, several large markets, and was home to a thriving population, which seems to have been dominated by Equites. The Equites were a group within Roman society roughly akin to what we would call the upper middle, or business class. There was a number of upper class, or Patrician, Romans who owned villas in the region as well and it was a popular leisure destination.  The region was also particularly known then, as it is now, for its excellent farmland, a result of the volcanic activity.

Mt. Vesuvius

While the Romans, and indeed all peoples in classical antiquity, had no understanding of volcanology, plate tectonics, or even what exactly a volcano was, they were aware the region was geologically active, as we would call it. Indeed the Romans called another area near Vesuvius, which is a large volcanic crater, Campi Flagrei, of ‘field of fire’. Mt. Vesuvius, which was notably taller before its most famous eruption, had no eruptions for several centuries before 79. Therefore, even though there were frequent minor earthquakes, including a severe one in 62 which did major damage to the city, there was no knowing that living within the shadow of the mountain would be so disastrous.

The eruption itself is also the first aspect of the disaster which has provided us with influential information. The Vesuvius eruption was the first known detailed record of a volcanic eruption in antiquity. Most of this information comes from a pair of letters Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend, the Roman Historian Tacitus, detailing the eruption which he witnessed from across the bay as a teenager and which had claimed the life of his uncle, the noted statesman and naturalist, Pliny the Elder. His vivid descriptions of the great ash cloud produced by the eruption are the reason such eruptions are often referred to as Plinian Eruptions. Perhaps more surprisingly, given that, again, the Roman had no concept of volcanology, Pliny some very astute observation, recording “its[the ash cloud] general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided.”

Though the town of Herculaneum, which was located on the other side of the mountain from Pompeii, was destroyed more quickly by pyroclastic flows, including being similarly preserved, the burial of Pompeii and the surrounding countryside was not instantaneous. Information on which was provided to Pliny the Younger by his Uncles companions, when the elder Pliny travelled across the bay both to evacuate people and to study the eruption himself. It was later that night, or early the next morning, that a pyroclastic flow finally completed the burial of Pompeii. As a result of this period of time, it is believed that the large majority of Pompeii’s 20,000 population managed to escape with probably only a small portion of the population remaining in the city, though about 18,000 in total are thought to have died in the eruption. Most of those that stayed were likely the elderly or infirm who, like Pliny the elder, who was elderly and overweight, were unable to breath in the ash or else they succumbed to the heat. The other group that stayed was likely shop owners and businessmen who decided staying to prevent looters was the wiser course of action. While the exact demographics and numbers of those who stayed are unknown and unknowable, the casts that have been made of their prone forms shows that they unquestionably died in agony. Furthermore, while the city wasn’t excavated until 1749 there is some evidence that the Romans might have built tunnels to try to recover their valuables.

Preserving the Past: Pompeii

A Photo of the Past

As tragic as the destruction of Pompeii was in 79, the excavation of the preserved city has provided us with an invaluable ‘photograph’ of what life was like in a Roman city in the first century CE. Perhaps the most ubiquitous piece of evidence is the architecture of typical Roman houses and shops. Though the pyroclastic flow destroyed everything above the ground floor on most of the buildings, Pompeii has still given us insight into how Roman houses and villas were constructed, we know what their streets looked like, and we know that they had a variety of small shops and eateries, very bar like in design, among other things. We also have insights into Roman culture from their wall art, mosaics, statues, and graffiti. More important is the fact that we have those artifacts and buildings in the context in which they were built. This is useful because most other artifacts and information we have is, to some degree at least, out of context. Literary material gives us very little information on common and everyday life, what little information that can be gleaned from them is derived by reading between the lines and is often subject to whatever the author’s biases were.  While there are numerous examples of Roman engineering prowess which still exist, such as the Pantheon, the Coliseum, and various aqueducts, common buildings such as houses and shops have long since been plowed over or rebuilt over the centuries. A similar problem arises from art, we have numerous examples of Roman artwork, but most are chance survivals and we have almost no artwork from common people.

More fascinating and unique is the fact that one archaeologist, Dr. Wilhelmina Jashemski, worked out a way of deducing how Romans planted gardens and arbors in and around their cities. Much like the casts which have been made of the people who died in Pompeii, Dr. Jashemski realized that the roots of planets would have decayed, leaving holes of the same shape in the ash, so she poured plaster into the holes. The casts which were made could then be matched to known plant species. This allowed her to learn what Romans planted and where and how they planted as well. The materials in Pompeii, as well as Herculaneum, have given us the vast majority of information we have on everyday Roman life.

Preserving Pompeii

Despite all that Pompeii has taught us, and indeed continues to teach us, there are two very palpable threats to its continued existence and a definite limit that has yet to be overcome. The limit is the fact that only about 2/3 of Pompeii has been excavated thus far. However, archaeologists have had trouble getting permission to excavate the rest because much of it is farmland though that is the least of Pompeii’s problems.

The more immediately and preventable problem is that Pompeii’s fame has made it a very popular tourist destination and the Italian government has done almost nothing to stem this tide or ensure the integrity of the site. Wind, rain, heat, pollution, and most importantly, tourists, are the prime threats to the site. While I am certainly all for people taking an interest in the ancient world and I am grateful for being able to visit the site myself, 2,500,000 visit the site in a given year. On dry days in the summer, large dust clouds tend to form from all the people walking through the sandy streets and in November, 2010 one of the houses collapsed. While I am hesitant to proclaim that the site should be closed to tourists, something has to be done or Pompeii might not survive another generation.

Mt Vesuvius - Preserving the Past: Pompeii

The longer term, but more looming, threat is the very mountain which buried Pompeii in the first place. It is believed by volcanologists that the reason for the massive eruption in 79CE is that a plug formed in the main lava vent, which caused pressure to build up until the mountain exploded. Though Vesuvius has had numerous smaller eruptions, including one famous one filmed by John Ford in 1944, volcanologists believe another plug might be forming in the volcano. While this poses a threat to the ruins of Pompeii, the more frightening aspect of this is that 3 million people live within the area that was buried in ash in 79CE, not counting tourists, and there is no plan in place for quick evacuations were the eruption to occur with little warning, and the roads are not designed for such traffic. What is more, if the volcano follows the same pattern as it did in 79CE, there will be very little warning before the eruption, though modern seismographs and the science of volcanology should prevent people from being taken completely by surprised.

Pompeii is a valuable site that has provided us with invaluable information on the Roman World, but the site is in danger as humans threaten to do what a massive volcano failed to do nearly 2000 years ago and destroy the city. It would be a shame were that to happen, given all that we could still learn from Pompeii.



Jashemski, Wilhelmina F. The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the villas destroyed by Vesuvius. New Rochelle: Caratzas Brothers 1979.

Zanker, Paul. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1998.(there are a great many books on Pompeii, this is a good general overview)

Gaius Plinius Secundus. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

The first two images are my own, the third is from Wikipedia


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