In the first century, the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy were the Roman equivalent of Malibu or Beverly Hills. They were established towns filled with the huge vacation houses of Rome’s wealthy elite. Of course, they also had sizable populations of regular people too. Those towns, along with the modern mega-city of Naples, rest on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, among the most famous volcanos in the world. In 79 AD, a huge eruption sent avalanches of molten rock and poisonous gas that killed everyone who remained in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also buried those towns in 70+ feet of ash, effectively wiping them off the face of the earth.
15 centuries later Pompeii was rediscovered. The tightly packed ash and pumice had preserved an entire roman town. It preserved the beautifully painted walls in the houses of the rich, the streets and the buildings that remained standing after the volcano, countless Roman statues, artifacts and everyday objects- even graffiti. It also preserved the body shapes of people who died and were buried in the eruption. These were filled with plaster to create the famous body casts we see today. Pompeii has been under constant excavation for hundreds of years now and is arguably the worlds most famous archeological site. It could also be argued that Pompeii was discovered a few hundred years too early. Today, archeologists are much more meticulous and careful, and the ruins are suffering some neglect. It costs millions to maintain them, and just this last year an ancient villa collapsed in a rainstorm. It remains a hot topic of discussion in the Italian media.
I’ll post a few more articles on Pompeii in the next few weeks. For now, check out the BBC film “Pompeii: The Last Day”, which combines a very realistic reenactment of the tragic day in 79 with lots of great narrated information. Enjoy-