Pomp of Pompeii


Pompeii was a pompous town before it was struck by the greatest natural disaster of the 11th century. Its pomp was buried under the rubble of a volcano that towers like a dormant giant over the Bay of Naples. Millions in modern Naples live under the spectre of its impending eruption.

The streets of Pompeii are alive with the ghosts of the past. You feel like a time traveller, as your stroll through the streets and empty houses that were abandoned so suddenly on a fateful hot summer day all those years ago when Vesuvius fatefully erupted.

Ancient Rome is so en vogue. It seems to be forever gracing our TV screens in documentaries and historical reconstructions. So it is no big surprise that Pompeii and its sister town of Herculaneum are among the more popular cultural attractions for visitors to the majestic Bay of Naples.

Indeed a visit to the ruins provides adequate cultural respite and justification for many of those who feel they have spent too much of their holiday lounging on the beaches of Amalfi or beside the pool of their luxurious Sorrento Hotel.

So sudden was the destruction and preservation of these most famous of Roman ghost towns that they have been enshrined in a time-warp. In no other place do you get such a feel for what Roman life was truly like.

A Dormant Giant

In 1070AD, few people even knew that Vesuvius was volcanic at all. The summit was covered in the luxurious forest\where Spartacus once hid.  The great Augustus aqueduct ensured the fertile slopes of the mountain provided food and good wine for the people of the city. It still does today and the Tears of Christ (Lachyrma Christi) wine grown on Vesuvius’s slopes is well recommended.

It was mid summer and bay towns were full. A big festival was in full swing and portents of imminent danger were ignored. Reports of huge giants (probably steamy fumaroles) spotted by local shepherds were dismissed as hearsay.

Earth tremors that preceded the eruption were ignored as they were common in the area anyhow.

Spouting Vesuvius

Suddenly on August 10th Vesuvius erupted in a great explosion and the area was plunged into darkness by a massive mushroom cloud of flying debris. This was no normal eruption, as there was no warning or lava flow – now called a Plinian eruption (after Pliny the Elder who died as a result of the eruption at one of the ports along the coast – his nephew provided a detailed description of events that is still pored over by scientists).

The eruption’s cloud column of ash and debris was thrown miles up into the sky as a furious power was unleashed. The column eventually collapsed, and waves of boiling hot pyroclastic cloud swept down the mountain to engulf the nearby towns and kill all that lay in its path – human and beast.

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered an ignominious fate. Pompeii was pummeled with a rain of black porous pumice stones and buried under the sheer volume of these light rocks.

Herculaneum was enshrined in a boiling mud bath just when it looked like it might escape unscathed. Everyone died a horrible death of suffocation. The contrast in the fate of these two towns mirrored their different characters.

Kitsch Pompeii

Pompeii was a brash nouveau riche town with a mixed population of freed slaves and “blowins” from the colonies.  It was a town of great commerce as evident from the graffiti that remains to this day on the city walls – ‘Hail Profit’ and ‘Profit is Happiness’.

The manufacture of fish sauce made with anchovies and wine production were the two main industries. But it was also a place for lowlifes and dishonest dealings. Brothels and seedy bars filled the streets.

Prostitutes plied their trade and the boasts of some of the male residents of the city can be seen on the walls of these dens of inequity. Even the decoration in Pompeii’s more expensive villas would have been considered crass and kitsch at the time by upper-echelon Romans

Herculaneum was a more sophisticated small fishing town. It was the site of many exclusive and secluded luxury villas and holiday home’s of the elite of Rome. It was a place to retire for those with old money. Much of the major treasures of the ruins of Pompeii and Vesuvius are at the Museum of Archaeology in Naples.

The sites were plundered and ransacked in the early days by Bourbon kings after their chance rediscovery. A pre-visit will really enhance your trip out to the actual ruins themselves, especially if you climb the stairs to see the magnificent mosaics and frescoes.

A Day at modern Pompeii

To take in all of the major sites at Pompeii will take the better part of a whole day. In mid-Summer it is very hot, so the earlier your arrival the better and the less crowded the ruins.

Some highlights that you should consider if your time is short are a quick tour of the forum area, the basilica and the Temple of Apollo.

The three must see villas are the House of the Vetii and the House of the Faun with their wonderfully preserved mosaics and paintings and the Villa of the Mysteries with its allegorical fresco that is interpreted as being the initiation of a woman into some strange religious cult. It is a bit of a walk to Villa of the Mysteries, but well worth it.

Ruins at Ercolano

The ruins at Herculaneum are altogether more compact. The site is better preserved as it was encased in mud up to 20 metres high and you can see some houses just as they were left.

You descend deep down into the excavation site from the middle of the modern town of Ercolano.

Highlights of these ruins include the Palaestra, the House of the Mosaic Atrium and the Triton Mosaic in the large city baths (Terme del Foro). Here many wooden household items were instantaneously carbonized. A baby’s cot was preserved in this way.

Hiking Vesuvius

For fit folk, a hike up to see the Vesuvius crater will sate their appetite for athletic activity. The hike takes about an hour along a well worn path. Early to mid morning is best for the climb, as in the afternoon the mountain often fills with enveloping cloud. The mountainside seems strangely serene and the greenery of the vegetation makes it seem positively benign. It is eerie.

At the summit you can peer down into the crater and take photos of the barren nothingness. Some erratic fumaroles show occasional activity, but have been silent anytime I have been there.

Scientists keep vigilant for signs of impending doom in an observatory nearby. Vesuvius is a monitored mountain.  The only active volcano on mainland Europe has been docile for half a century – a sign that makes vulcanologist wary. Eruption in the near future is unlikely, but they thought this before and Campania is unpredictable and has an unstable geography.

There is a direct correlation between the magnitude of an eruption and the length of dormancy of a sleeping volcano. So the next one could be big.

Napoli’s Fire

The nearby frenetic city of Naples buzzes in perennial rush hour. Although the volcano Vesuvius lurks in the background few pay it heed. Millions of folk live and work within the range of the mountain.

The Bay of Naples is Vulcan’s amphitheatre and here the African continental plate collides with the European landmass as it moves north.

The Phlegrean fields north of the city could someday be the largest volcanic eruption ever, but it is Vesuvius that poses the more immediate threat.

A catastrophe is inevitable, but it is impossible to predict just when.

Signposts direct you in all directions towards mysterious “scavi” in the areas around Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many are “chiuso” or closed to the public. Funds to excavate have all but dried up.

Much of Herculaneum remains unexcavated under Ercolano residences. A lot of treasure is still hidden underground.  Whether we will ever see them in time remains to be seen. Earth tremors continue to damage existing unearthed structures and they are propped up haphazardly.

Attilus and Corelia, the two heroes of Robert Harris’s bestselling novel Pompeii, escaped the wrath of the volcano through an underground water channel and emerged from the earth at dusk the day the eruption ended.  It is doubtless this could happen, in fiction or reality, again if the sleeping ground beneath Vesuvius should stir.

Getting there: The easiest way to get to the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum is via hire car. The same goes for if you want to scale Vesuvius. Some hotels in the area organize trips for their guests to visit the ruins and to climb the volcano.

Alternatively you can catch the slow and circuitous Circumvesuviana train that runs from Naples or Sorrento to Pompeii or Ercolano for Herculaneum. Both of these train stations are within walking distance of the ruins.

Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.

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