A trip to Italy is not complete unless you visit the ancient city of Pompeii, a city once lost to the world for over a millennium after the eruption by Mount Vesuvius in August 24-25, 79 AD.
Pompeii was a resort city that housed the summer homes of the Roman rich and elite. There may have been up to 20,000 inhabitants during the eruption with around 2000 perished as they had remained after the start of the eruption. Many other thousands perished in the Pompeii – Herculaneum area.
We must thank Pliny the Younger, a Roman administrator and poet, for his account of the earthquake and volcanic eruption four days later by Mount Vesuvius! Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, was stationed at the imperial naval base of Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. Pliny the Elder was a senior officer in the Roman Navy but also a naturalist who wrote a series of books on natural history. He also perished during the rescue of a friend in Pompeii when he was unable to leave due to the change in winds. There are questions whether he perished from inhaling the toxic fumes or from natural causes stemming from his asthma.
Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to Tacitus, a very well-known historian, around twenty years after the events. Pliny the Younger gave an astounding detailed account of the whole event including a passing remark of earth tremors that were not cause for alarm since they were frequent in the area. Unfortunately, no one connected the possibility of an earthquake leading to a volcanic eruption. In addition, Mount Vesuvius had not erupted significantly since 1800 BC (there was a smaller one in 217 BC) so the people were NOT prepared for raining of fire.
Pompeii was covered in ash, which preserved the city until it was rediscovered in 1748. Excavations started immediately and they continue to this day. For one full day, ash fell on the city along with pumice and rocks. Volcanic gases filled the city prompting many thousands to flee Pompeii and also Herculaneum. Soon a pyroclastic surge swelled out of the volcano at the rate of 100 km/hr, killing anyone who had remained. The city was not rebuilt and eventually was lost to many feet of rocks and ash.
Being buried beneath all that rock and debris, it helped to preserve the city. Buildings, roads, paintings and mosaics have survived almost two thousand years. You can even see graffiti on the buildings with silly things such as “Aufidius was here” or “Marcus loves Spendusa” or even political ads during elections. It is magnificent. My favourite building in Pompeii is the brothel. Erotic art fills the brothel as you can see below with a very comfortable looking bedroom.
Mount Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944 and the region has seen many small earthquakes over the years. Many people still live on the side of the mountain – I’m not sure that is brave or stupid. Probably a combination of both! 🙂
The easiest way to get to Pompeii is to take a day tour out of Rome. Or hope the train for a two-hour ride to Pompeii yourself. You probably won’t need the audio guide but if you can hook up with a tour group, I would recommend that. The guides are VERY knowledgeable about Pompeii.
It gets incredibly hot in Pompeii (and most of Italy) during the summer so be prepared. If you can visit a bit off-season (October), that is better. The weather drops below 30 degrees Celsius (yay) and there are fewer tourists. I am a fan of October travel! For more info on travel to Pompeii, try their official website. Remember, Pompeii is actually a very large area and much of it is not even excavated yet. It’ll take many years to complete it (if they ever do).
I leave you with my favourite photo I took in Pompeii (below). This was on the road and pointed towards the brothel. It gave those weary sea-men (ahem) directions to a house of ill-repute. 😉