Pompeii has been on my bucket list since, before ‘bucket lists’ were invented, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to visit both Pompeii, and the nearby city of Herculaneum during my recent visit to Naples.
I had read a lot about the discovery of Pompeii, the life of the city, it’s buildings and aqueducts, the earthquakes and warning signs which led up to devastating eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. I even read the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris!
An account of the eruption written by Pliny the Younger some 25 years later gives immediacy to the disaster, but it was the sudden death of the city, buried under metres of lava, it’s discovery over 1600 years later, and the many bodies cast in plaster during its excavation which was the main source of my childhood fascination.
The less famous Herculaneum, only about 5km from Vesuvius, was not just a port and fishing town on the Bay of Naples, but the holiday resort of the rich and famous Romans of Pompeii. At the time of the eruption, it was actually on the sea-shore, but earth movements since then mean it is now some distance inland. Buried under more than 16 metres of lava, the city was preserved in incredible detail, from the bread still in the bakers ovens, to the wooden racks of amphorae still filling the local wine shop. The two story buildings which survive here are shops and flats, restaurants and bakeries, opulent villas, magnificent baths, whose inhabitants were not only affluent Romans and their slaves, but the ordinary people living ordinary lives which have been frozen in an extraordinary moment in time.
It seems that there were an unusually high number of freed slaves living in Herculaneum, that they ate a lot of fish, heads and all, fruit, figs, grapes, and spiced their food with expensive, imported spices such as fennel, coriander and peppercorns. Paint remains on the walls, mosaics on the floors, and perhaps most impressive of all, a wooden screen still in position in it’s luxury villa. Wooden beds and babies cradles have been preserved, some still with their occupants, even a boat has been recovered from the marina.
The roads follow a grid pattern, and deep sturdy gutters which were once filled with rubbish, could only be crossed safely using the stepping stones provided. Lead pipes brought water to the many fountains around the town, and distributed it to individual houses of the rich.
On the beach at the foot of the cliffs lies a row of barrel vaulted buildings, the warehouses and boathouses of this busy port. It is here that the population ran for shelter when Vesuvius began to erupt, taking with them their valuables, money, jewelry, treasured toys and pets, it was their routine emergency evacuation procedure for the earthquakes that regularly shook the town, but it was no help in saving them from the pyroclastic flow of lava from the mountain. More than 300 skeletons were discovered here, the women and children sheltering inside the vaults, while the men perished on the ancient beach.
Wandering through these ancient streets there is a genuine feeling of a town frozen in time, whose citizens could return at any moment.
It is estimated that less than a quarter of the original site has so far been excavated, and as the remaining site now lies under the modern city of Ercolano, it seems likely that it will stay safe and well protected for many years to come.