Pompeii - Everyday Roman life preserved in a buried city (29 May)
Interesting Facts about Pompeii
AUGUST 24, A.D. 79, dawned like any other day in Pompeii, a bustling provincial city about 150 miles (241 km) south of Rome. But that morning, the nearby volcano Vesuvius erupted, spewing ash and then superheated gas onto the settlement of about 15,000 people.
While most residents fled to safety, the eruption killed more than 1,000 and destroyed the city. Two millennia later, we are the beneficiaries of this natural disaster. The eruption buried Pompeii under layers of volcanic ash that calcified, locking the city in time and obscuring it from humanity until the 18th century, when archaeologists rediscovered the city and began excavating it. Today, there’s no place better to see what life was like during the Roman Empire. Visitors should pick up a map as they enter the city, as buildings and streets regularly close for renovation. Guides are also available for hire.
Two thousand years ago, in the city’s main street, Via dell’Abbondanza, men in togas would have been going about their daily business. Some would have stopped for a quick snack at a street-front restaurant, where holes in the stone counter held cauldrons of soup. More than 100 bars and taverns have been identified in the city—few residents cooked at home because they lived in such packed quarters and small spaces.
Other notable public spaces include the thermae, or baths, which played an important role in daily life, for reasons both hygienic and social. The baths of the Forum had an elaborate double-floor heating system, along with locker rooms and toilets.
The city’s rich and poor lived in close proximity, but then as now, wealth brought privilege. Wandering through the homes shows what money could buy: statues, brightly colored wall frescoes, and, above all, space.
The House of the Faun, which covered an entire city block, has lavish decoration and is a window on how the Roman aristocrat lived. Visitors should also tour the Villa of the Mysteries, where frescoes showing religious rites have been recently restored to their former glory, with reds and greens and human forms again vivid and rich.
And the people who died here? Archaeologists discovered skeletons buried by mud and ash, and made plaster casts of them. They’re now displayed throughout the city, showing ordinary citizens caught in the final moments of flight or terror. It is a poignant record of disaster—prone children, a dog caught in its death throes, men dragging themselves forward blindly, and families huddled in fetal positions.
The casts are a stark reminder that fascinating as Pompeii is today, it is also a mass grave. A visit there demands gravity in recognition of the loss of life.