Pompeii: A Snapshot of Ancient Roman Life | History Hit

Pompeii: A Snapshot of Ancient Roman Life

Graham Land

26 Jul 2018
Detail of the ancient painting in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii
Image Credit: BlackMac / Shutterstock.com

In August of 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering the Roman city of Pompeii in 4 – 6 metres of pumice and ash. The nearby town of Herculaneum met a similar fate.

Of the 11,000-strong population at the time, it is estimated that only around 2,000 survived the first eruption, while most of the rest perished in the second, which was even more powerful. The preservation of the site was so extensive because rain mixed with the fallen ash and formed a sort of epoxy mud, which then hardened.

What was a large-scale natural disaster for the ancient residents of Pompeii turned out to be a miracle in archaeological terms, due to the incredible conservation of the city.

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Written records of Pompeii

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.

—Pliny the Younger

Before the rediscovery of the site in 1599, the city and its destruction were known only through written records. Both Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger wrote about the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of Pompeii. Pliny the Elder described seeing a large cloud from across the bay, and as a commander in the Roman Navy, embarked on a nautical exploration of the area. He ultimately died, probably from inhaling sulphuric gases and ash.

Pliny the Younger’s letters to the historian Tacitus relate the first and second eruptions as well as the death of his uncle. He describes residents struggling to escape the waves of ash and how the rains later mixed with the fallen ash.

Karl Brullov ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’ (1830–1833). Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An incredible window into Ancient Roman culture

Though much about Ancient Roman culture and society was recorded in art and the written word, these media are purposeful, thought-out ways of transmitting information. Contrastingly, the disaster at Pompeii and Herculaneum provides a spontaneous and accurate 3-dimensional snapshot of ordinary life in a Roman city.

Thanks to the temperamental geological nature of Vesuvius, ornate paintings and gladiator graffiti alike have been preserved for two millennia. The city’s taverns, brothels, villas and theatres were captured in time. Bread was even sealed in bakery ovens.

There is simply no archaeological parallel to Pompeii as nothing comparable has survived in such a way or for such a long time, which so accurately preserves the lives of ordinary ancient people.

Most, if not all, the buildings and artefacts of Pompeii would have been lucky to last 100 years if not for the eruption. Instead they have survived for nearly 2,000.

What survived in Pompeii?

Examples of preservation at Pompeii include such diverse treasures as the Temple of Isis and a complementary wall painting depicting how the Egyptian goddess was worshiped there; a large collection of glassware; animal-powered rotary mills; practically intact houses; a remarkably well-conserved forum baths and even carbonised chicken eggs.

Ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii. Image credit: A-Babe / Shutterstock.com

Paintings range from a series of erotic frescos to a fine depiction of a young woman writing on wooden tablets with a stylus, a banquet scene and a baker selling bread. A somewhat more crude painting, though just as valuable in terms of history and archaeology, is from a city tavern and shows men engaging in gameplay.

A remnant of the ancient past faces an uncertain future

While the ancient site is still being excavated, it is more vulnerable to damage than it was all those years buried under ash. UNESCO has expressed concerns that the Pompeii site has suffered from vandalism and a general decline due to poor upkeep and a lack of protection from the elements.

Though most of the frescos have been rehoused in museums, the architecture of the city remains exposed and requires safeguarding as it is a treasure not just of Italy, but of the world.

Born to slaves in 1863, John Wesley Gilbert was the first student of the Paine Institute, a graduate of Brown University, and the first black archaeologist.
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Graham Land