All over the Mediterranean, magnificent structures built by the Romans are still in evidence. From the Colosseum and Roman Forum to aqueducts, theatres, and more, it seems that every place the ancient Romans touched has remnants of their engineering marvels. But while these amazing buildings are spectacular, they are just fragments of Roman life, as subsequent cultures built their cities on top of – or just using the pieces of – those built by Rome, so it is tough to get a real idea of what a Roman city would look like in its entirety. For that, we come to Pompeii.
The story of Pompeii is one that is known to most who study history of the ancient world. A port city of just over 10,000 inhabitants, Pompeii was completely buried under ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. That ash, which covered the city (as well as nearby Herculaneum and other villas and structures) to a depth of approximately 15-20 feet, preserved Pompeii to an extent not found anywhere else in the Roman world. Excavations weren’t done on a massive scale until more than 1500 years later. What remains is the most intact Roman city in existence, and a chance for visitors to truly walk the streets of such a city.
I arrive just after Pompeii’s 9am opening after a roughly 35 minute train ride from Naples. In August, it’s already warm, going on hot, but at least my advance tickets allow me to go right in rather than waiting in line. A “normal” visit begins at Pompeii’s Marina Gate, just off the Circumvesuviana train line that connects Naples with Sorrento. This entry point through Pompeii’s intact city walls was once, as the name implies, a gate to the city’s port. Today, the coast is about half a mile away. I walk past the suburban baths, one of at least four or five bath houses I’ll pass over the course of the day, and into the city itself.
The first thing a visitor notices at Pompeii is the remarkably intact streets. While they are somewhat uneven, the stones are well laid, and there are sidewalks in many places. (Some of these have been repaved for tourists, while others are original.) At intersections, higher stones allow for pedestrians to cross the streets and remain dry, even during storms. Gutters exist on either side of the major streets to also assist with storm water drainage.
This street plan is at the heart of what Roman city design was all about. Planned cities like Pompeii were drawn along a pure grid, with streets running at 90 degree angles to each other, and specifically to the compass points. The main north-south and east-west streets reached the city’s gates, and where they intersected, the city would have a forum, where the most major temples would sit alongside much of the commercial infrastructure (shops and the like). Smaller streets would create blocks, with some blocks (called insulae) being villas, and others smaller homes or shops, public buildings, or multi-family apartment sorts of buildings.
Pompeii is no exception to this general layout. I pass the Temple of Apollo along my main axis, and reach the city’s forum. The forum of Pompeii is a wide public plaza running north-south. A statue of a centaur sits on the southern side, fronting what was once the metropolitan government building. The Temple of Jupiter dominates the north, with Mount Vesuvius visible behind. To the east is the macellum, once a food market, and the first building I walk inside of.
Here in the macellum, visitors are treated to the first of what will be many intact frescos along an interior wall. When ash covered the city, it largely protected elements like this, keeping them – color and all – in remarkably good condition over the millennia. Sadly, many didn’t survive early excavations. When Pompeii was first excavated, newly uncovered buildings were left exposed to the elements, so much of the decay seen today in the form of ruins is from that period. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more care was taken to protect newly excavated portions of the city, in the form of limiting visitor access to building interiors, building roofs over areas to prevent direct sunlight, and covering frescos and mosaics with plexiglass.
It is in this building I also see the first plaster casts of people who died here in 79. When ash from the eruption covered the city, it covered people. Over the centuries, the bodies decomposed, creating cavities in the ash. These casts were made by pumping plaster into those cavities and then removing the surrounding ash, leaving behind fascinating and macabre ghostly outlines of the former inhabitants of Pompeii, most of whom are in positions trying to protect themselves from the onslaught of ash. Roughly 1,100 such casts have been made, and I come across maybe a dozen over my day at Pompeii. I assume the rest are in an archive somewhere.
From the forum, one can go any direction. And that is the beauty of Pompeii. While many of the more impressive buildings are along the axes, visitors can actually just wander, peering down streets and into the remains of all sorts of buildings. The northwest quadrant of the city is a good place to avoid the cruise ship tour groups, which begin to arrive around 1030am or so. For much of the area here, I have the city to myself. The highlight in this portion is the Casa del Dioscuri, which has a truly massive collection of intact frescos around two courtyards of what would have been a vast upper class villa.
Another villa worth seeing, although one will have to contend with the crowds to do so, is the House of the Faun, so named for a statue of a faun (a mythical goat-human) on a beautiful set of colored geometric flooring. While some of the villas in the surrounding areas outside of Pompeii are significantly larger, here we can see what an urban upper class villa would have looked like. It exists along two courtyards. One would be public, the other private. Roughly thirty people would have lived in this 27,000 square foot mansion, with rooms ranging from bedrooms to antechambers still visible, some with their mosaic floors intact. A villa like this might have had a private temple to the family patron deity, gardens with fruit trees, and slave quarters.
As I wander the streets of Pompeii, I pass buildings that would have been taverns, bakeries, public baths, shops, villas, and more. Some are barely shells; others are mainly intact and can be entered to see what treasures (frescos and mosaics, mainly) remain. Some buildings even have remnants of exterior paint, which is amazing given the city was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago.
And along some of the streets, one can even see areas still covered with ash. As of 2023, only two thirds of Pompeii has been uncovered, and excavations are ongoing, though not open to the public. It is incredible to consider just how much is left to discover!
Of course, no Roman city would be complete without public works, and Pompeii has some amazing preserved ones to see. In the southeastern corner of the city sits Pompeii’s amphitheatre, built in roughly 70 BCE. It is hard to capture the feeling of being inside, as photos can’t do justice to the scale, although it is much smaller than the Colosseum and similar buildings I’ve seen from larger Roman cities like Nimes, France.
Two theatres are also preserved in Pompeii. While the small theatre is only visible from the outside, one can enter the larger one, sit in the seats the aristocracy would have used, look at the remains of the stage, and then climb up to the upper exit.
Even though Pompeii was a relatively small city, the existence of such public buildings reinforces that Rome believed public entertainment was important both to the spread of culture, and also as a means of propaganda and keeping control of the populace.
Between the amphitheatre and the theatre district, the Palestra Grande hosts a small museum (another sits at Pompeii’s exit, back through Marina Gate) with some artifacts that have been recovered and removed from their original places: murals, kitchen utensils, vegetables preserved in the ash, and even a loaf of bread. There are statues, mosaics, and other wonders that in and of themselves wouldn’t be super impressive, but when one thinks about the sheer volume of these things that existed under the volcanic destruction, it is incredible.
Of course, for the best collection of “stuff” from Pompeii, one must return to Naples and visit the National Museum of Archeology, where one quickly realizes that what is actually visible in Pompeii is barely the tip of the iceberg of what was discovered here, and that the beauty and intricacy of Roman city life between 100 BCE and 79 CE was greater than we ever thought possible. But more on that – and the rest of Naples – in another article. Suffice to say it only adds to the wonder of Pompeii to pair a trip to the ruins with a visit to the museum.
In all, I spend about four hours walking more than six miles through the ruins at Pompeii, covering nearly every part of the city. I’d have spent more time, but mid-90s Fahrenheit weather and the lack of food inside (there are a number of cafes outside the Marina Gate and one inside near the forum) make the visit more tiring than it otherwise would have been. And while I loved seeing the major buildings, my favorite part of Pompeii was strolling along side streets, gazing into open buildings, marveling at public water fountains (some have been repiped to provide the ability to refill my water bottle repeatedly), and generally experiencing the incredible mastery of Roman city planning, architecture, and engineering.
If one is in southern Italy, a visit to Pompeii is probably on the list of things to do. And it should be. While Pompeii doesn’t have the huge monoliths of Rome or other more major cities, it is a complete Roman town, and the ability to explore that is unrivaled anywhere else. Make sure to do so!
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