Contemplating Modernity and Mortality
A visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum
Staring at the dead entombed in the boathouses of Herculaneum, it would be difficult not to wonder who they were, how they lived, and what it was like to die like that. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, Herculaneum was spared the first wave of heavy falling ash and debris that fell on Pompeii, collapsing roofs and burying the first victims there. The winds initially favored Herculaneum and people were evacuating into boats down at the shore. However, the evening after the start of the eruption brought a pyroclastic surge, a column of hot gasses and ash that had risen up through the stratosphere and then collapsed burying the city in ash and incinerating the flesh of the remaining citizens. A recent study estimates that the gas that killed the people in the photo above was 250 degrees Celsius.
When I look at these remains, I wonder one more thing. Are we related? Were any members of my ancestral family vaporized at Herculaneum or buried at Pompeii. The modern citizenry of Naples and the whole Campania region must be used to this question, and no doubt many moderns lost distant relatives on that day in 79 AD. This was my first trip to that area of Italy, but you can see from the map below that my last name is heavily concentrated in the region and the name may trace back to the original Greeks who founded the city before the rise of Rome.
During our trip to Naples and Amalfi, we spent a full day touring Pompeii and Herculaneum from a base in Sorento. It was nice to avoid the crowds in Naples and take the train against the main flow to get to the sites. We certainly had plenty of crowds to contend with in Pompeii though, followed by a leisurely, sometimes abandoned walk around Herculaneum. One thing I will say, is if you visit do not skip Herculaneum. It is a much smaller site; it is better preserved, and the experience of visiting is a dream in comparison to Pompeii.
Pompeii does not disappoint though. The only comparable experience is walking around the ancient forum of Rome. We used Rick Steves’s guidebook on the iPhone and it really helped to navigate on our own. There isn’t much signage either, so have a guidebook if you want to know what you are looking at. Above is the Temple of Venus at one end of a square of public buildings. I somehow managed a photo with no one in it.
I wasn’t so lucky photographically, when it came to the main forum. Still, it is quite spectacular to look down this ruined scene and see the source of it’s destruction beyond the Temple of Jupiter at the far end.
To see many of the antiquities from Pompeii, it is important to visit the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which we had done two days before. Most of the artifacts have been removed from the site, but along the forum are gated areas with others waiting to be cataloged. It is quite striking to look into these storage areas and see the remains of humans along with the vessels and columns. The position of this body is really striking.
Seventeen years before the town’s destruction from the volcano, it was severely damaged by an earthquake. The people at the time could have no idea that the earthquake was related to the increasing seismic activity in the volcano and they were still in the process of rebuilding at the time of the eruption. The column above had been broken in the earthquake and then repaired.
One of the only buildings to retain its roof was that of the baths. This shot shows a carved marble fountain in its original place outside the main bathing room. You can still see some of the decorative paintings on the walls.
Some of my favorite ruins were those where you could still see the decorative frescos on the walls. This view from the House of the Tragic Poet helps illustrate how colorful the walls would have been at the time. In fact, the residents of Pompeii were known to have decorative tastes that would be called gaudy by today’s standards. Given some of the decorations among my extended family when I was a child, I’d say things haven’t changed all that much.
The three photos above are from the House of the Faun, a second century BC private residence where some of the most impressive artifacts and frescoes were excavated. House is an understatement here. It is named for the statue of the faun discovered among the ruins, but archeologists have also uncovered an inscription with the cognomen ‘Saturninus,’ placing it within and important clan. I find the last shot particularly interesting because it shows the heating ducts that were beneath the floors. It would have been a comfortable building by today’s standards with the large central courtyard, airy windows, and heating for winter.
And of course, every good Roman town needs a bakery. Here you can see the mills for grinding grain along with a brick oven for baking.
Looking down a street you can see tracks of ancient chariots worn into the stone. The three large stones were for pedestrians to cross while the streets were flooded. They regularly flooded the streets to was away the filth.
We didn’t make it out to the amphitheater on the far side of the site, but the Grand Theater was quite impressive and you can still see performances there today.
Another building with the roof in tact, the brothel. There was a whole series of frescos with sex positions, but they were not meant to be a menu of services offered as some guidebooks speculate. Erotic art was popular, even outside of brothels. The National Archeological museum in Naples has a “secret room” with much of the erotic art uncovered in the town. I have to say that the beds do not look comfortable for patrons or workers, but we can only assume there were some sort of mattresses upon these beds.
After several hours of fighting the crowds in the heat of Pompeii, Herculaneum was a welcome change. It is just a few stops up the line on the train and then about 3/4 of a mile walk to the site. Here you can see the ancient site of Herculaneum with the modern city above it. I don’t think the architecture has changed much.
Here is a bit of an opposite view. An orchard growing in the ancient city with the modern city in view above it. Again, how much different do they look? The ancient city looked more livable.
We saw several of these in Pompeii as well, but this one is in great shape. This is an ancient fast food joint that would have clay pots full of food to sell to passers by. If you look towards the back row, you can see how large the pots really are.
Here is a view of how modern the lives of these people really was. Plumbing, good plumbing, right to the house.
And speaking of quality of life, this is a view inside a regular residence in the town.
And here is a local temple.
And in this two-story residence, you can see where the floor/ceiling was and how the decoration differed between floors.
Here you can see how they used the ancient volcanic stone to build their mills. As with the photo from Pompeii, the bakery had both ovens and mills, so the whole process from raw grain to finished loaf happened in a single establishment.
The proximity to Vesuvius had great advantages for the people of this area. They had the volcanic stone, the rich soil that still nourishes the famous tomatoes of San Marzano, and even hot springs for bathing, but they could never have known that the mountain would blow off its top killing so many with hot gas and ash. Millions live in its shadow today, even knowing what it has done in the past. I can’t imagine what it would be like of Vesuvius erupted again, but it isn’t really a matter of if, but of when.
When archeologists first discovered the ruins of Herculaneum they only discovered a few skeletons, so they hypothesized that most residents must have escaped. It wasn’t until they discovered the boathouses with the remains of over three hundred individuals that they began to understand what happened. There was a rescue mission under way—Pliny the Elder was killed by the hot gasses while trying to rescue people—but when the column of gas and ash collapsed, those waiting for rescue were killed instantly. These boathouses are now nearly a mile inland due to the land created by the eruption. It is comforting to know the people in the photo above were probably killed instantly, but there must have been much fear leading up to the moment nevertheless. These people, so modern to have indoor plumbing, had no way of understanding what was happening to them. I still wonder if I am related to any of them, but it doesn’t really change anything when you consider the scale of human tragedy. Men, women, children, their flesh vaporized as they waited for rescue.
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