Discovering the Past in Pompeii

It was not the molten rocks or flowing lava that destroyed Pompeii nearly 2000 years ago; it was the ash, covering everything with a layer more than 20 feet deep.
Before Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., Pompeii was a prosperous city of trade and luxurious residences at the mouth of the River Sarno in Italy. Twenty thousand of its 22,000 residents escaped the tragedy, but their city did not. After the eruption, it lay buried, forgotten and virtually undisturbed for 1,600 years, until excavation of the archeological site began in 1860. It continues to the present. Approximately one quarter of the city is still buried.  Most the ruins look like half-crumbled walls, and if you don’t know what they were originally, you’ll be seeing only the surface and missing the significance of your visit. So, I suggest you tour with a knowledgeable guide or listen to one of the audio guides available.

When you enter through the arched gates of Porta Marina, you come upon the forum. Rows of columns define the area, which now exhibits the remains of municipal buildings, a basilica (for secular business) and a temple. You can also view Mount Vesuvius gleaming in the distance, ever present. Even in ruin, the city reveals thoughtful planning.

Large, raised, circular stepping stones, spaced so chariot wheels could pass on either side, enabled residents to cross the street during the rainy season. As I walked along, with my own footsteps falling into the worn ruts, I couldn't help but feel a connection to the past. I observed a deep pride of place: floors decorated with inlaid marble or detailed mosaics, painted walls, and wonderful architectural details. Frescos at the House of the Small Fountain on Mercury Street reflect the vibrant life that once existed in this port-side community. We know a fairly rich family owned this house, which featured running water and upstairs bedrooms. 

An even wealthier family owned the House of the Faun, named for the bronze statue of the mythological wood-nymph that embellishes the garden, edged with Doric columns. With beautiful marble inlays, 88 columns, two atriums, six bedrooms, servants’ quarters and grand entrances, this surely was a glorious edifice.  The exedra, or dining room, floor is decorated with a magnificent (and now famous) battle mosaic portraying the conquest of Alexander the Great over his enemy Darius, King of the Persians. The original of both the mosaic and the statue are in the National Museum in nearby Naples, but the reproductions at Pompeii place these masterpieces into context and allow us to visualize the grand lifestyle that once existed here. This extraordinary house, covering an entire block—128 feet by 352 feet—is thought to have belonged to Publius Sulla, an official administrator of Pompeii.

We also see middle class homes and poorer residences. One amusing entrance shows the mosaic of a dog with the words Cave Canem, “Beware of the dog.”  There is a bakery with bread still in the ovens, shops with produce on shelves, and wine jugs in a bar. We see everyday life, interrupted. 

It is almost impossible to image what it must have been like to see a mountain explode and cover your world with 20 feet of ash. Yet, because of this amazing protective covering, we can image what life was like before the eruption. Walking the streets of Pompeii is like traveling nearly 2000 years back in time to find the past is not so different from the present.




The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin