Walking through History in Pompeii

When I was a kid I was a hard-core fan of pedestrian crossings in Ancient Rome.

Anfiteatro, pompei
Pompeii Theater.

In Italy, the history of Ancient Rome takes up a huge part of our curriculum; we start studying it in primary school, then study it some more in middle school, and finally study it again in high school, just to make sure we got it right. We actually used to do this with most part of European History, but you always get the feeling that teachers and professors are particularly fond of Ancient Rome, and they want you to be fond of it too. Still I never got to learn all the names of the first Seven Kings of Rome, even though they were only seven. I didn’t like them, but I did like to learn about life in ancient Roman cities.

Pompeii, for example. Close to Naples, even closer to the Vesuvius, one of the most famous volcanoes in the world; it was part of the Roman Empire when that same volcano decided to erupt and destroy it, killing all who couldn’t flee in time. Only, the eruption didn’t really destroy everything in Pompeii, nor in Herculaneum, a smaller, close-by little town. It was 79 AD.

First in 1599, then in 1748, Pompeii and Herculaneum were slowly rediscovered. Thanks to the lack of air and moisture in the soil, the two cities remained well preserved, waiting underground for almost two thousand years. They are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and open for everyone to see and visit.

Rovine di Pompei e Vesuvio
Pompeii and the Vesuvius.

Back to my school years, I had a History book with an amazing two-page drawing of Pompeii, based on the actual city, that showed the everyday life of ancient Pompeian people. They apparently had all sorts of comforts: snack-bars, sidewalks, fountains, public baths; bust most importantly, they had the most awesome pedestrian crossings in the whole course of History. They had actual knee-high rocks (as high as the sidewalks, obviously), usually two or three, placed in the middle of the road. This way, ancient Pompeians could cross the streets without getting off the sidewalk and without risking to be run over by a chariot. Chariots themselves could easily drive through the pedestrian crossings, the wheels passing in between the perfectly placed blocks of stone. No wonder I was amazed.

This is why I completely freaked out when I visited Pompeii for the first time and saw the pedestrian crossings in real life. I must have looked pretty weird, jumping from one rock to the other and taking tons of pictures.

The rest of the site is just incredible.

It is also quite easy to reach with public transportation, as long as you don’t mind old trains, older stations, and an overall confusing timetable. The railway line is called Circumvesuviana; starting in Naples Central Station, it touches almost all of the towns settled on the hillside of the Vesuvius, embracing the volcano in a ring. The first time I traveled on it, I was extremely unsure of the place my train was going; of course, I knew we weren’t going toward Naples, but it was unclear which stops it was going to make. I finally decided to hop off at the first point of interest, which happened to be Herculaneum.

Strada di Ercolano
Herculaneum.

Herculaneum is still a town nowadays, as is Pompeii. At its heart, you can find the archeological site and pay a visit. It is quite small, especially if compared to Pompeii, but full of little wonders.

I distinctly remember the moment when my audio guide (which you can rent at the ticket office) said, in a matter-of-fact tone, that the jambs of the villa I was visiting were original. I looked at them: they had plexiglass panels all around but you could see they were made of wood. Wood jambs from 79 AD. Wood jambs roughly 1900 years old. And they were still there. I just couldn’t get over it.

Or maybe I did, just a little, when a few moments later the audio guide, in that same matter-of-fact tone, pointed out that there was a portion of the floor where you could see the underground pipe that brought water into the villa I was visiting. I knew I shouldn’t be surprised since they had all sorts of technologies then (ancient Romans were extraordinary architects and engineers). And I had probably studied it at school too. Still, I almost lost it there. Water pipes! Bringing water directly from the aqueduct to people’s homes! And then Middle Age happened and everybody forgot how to wash properly.

Ancient Romans (and Pompeians) loved comfort. Of course not everybody could afford water pipes going right through their villas’ doors, nor villas through which doors they could run water pipes. But basically almost everyone in Ancient Rome could walk into a public bath and enjoy its frigidaria and calidaria and tepidaria; they could get massages and they could relax. Some baths were even free of charge, or at least really cheap.

When I finally reached Pompeii (after taking a train going toward an uncertain destination under the assumption that the tourists I was following had to be going to Pompeii), I thought I had a clearer idea of what I would find. Ah! Never been further from the truth.

Bivio e fontana, Pompei
A fountain. They had fountains in the streets.

Pompeii is huge. At the entrance, you are given a map, which makes you feel like you’re in some sort of a theme park, not an archaeological site. Of course, if you are a hard-core fan of pedestrian crossings in Ancient Rome as I am, Pompeii is a theme park. An awesome theme park.

If you enter through Porta Marina, the West entrance (Circumvesuviana station: Pompei Scavi – Villa dei Misteri), you find yourself at the bottom of a lane that goes up into the forum, which was the center of Pompeian life. From there you can have a look at the vastness of the site.

I rented an audio guide, so I could just wander and listen to what the thing had to say (which was a lot). And there I was, jumping from one rock to the other, my mouth a fixed O of surprise, my eyes sparkling with awe. The sun was burning my shoulders and my feet were silently screaming in agony, but I didn’t feel anything. I stopped to eat only when I realized I would faint flat on the pavement if I didn’t have a bite of something.

Moving around Pompeii feels like you accidentally stepped in a time-traveling machine and found yourself in 79 AD. Most buildings are in ruins, true, but you still get a very clear idea of what the city must have looked like when it had people living in it, running errands, walking about, talking, eating, selling and buying.

And some people are still there. Well, they are not very much alive, but they still live there. I am obviously talking of the famous plaster casts of the dying inhabitants of the city: those who did not flee died (probably from the high heat), and their bodies were then covered by the volcanic ash, which hardened; the bodies withered, but they left behind cavities in the hardened ash. By pouring plaster into these cavities it was then possible to see the Pompeians’ last moments. Which is very creepy.

Calco in gesso, Pompei
Told you it was creepy.

The restoration of Pompeii is a work that’s been in progress for basically forever since the city was rediscovered back in the XVIII century. If those walls could talk, they would probably recount a comprehensive record of the different restoration techniques that were used year after year. In a way, those walls can talk, and they tell of a time when tearing frescoes off them was considered the best way to protect art and history. This is why most of Pompeii frescoes and mosaics can now be found at Naples National Archeological Museum; this includes the famous Secret Cabinet, where a collection of erotic and sexual items is displayed.

Ancient Romans were not as prudish as we are now when it came to sexuality. Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the State. Prostitution was legal, public and widespread; Pompeii had 25 brothels, which was kind of impressive for a city with 8000 to 10000 inhabitants.

One of these brothels, the Lupanare, can be visited today, and it’s one of the main attractions of the site: on two floors, it had one room for each prostitute and frescoes on the wall above each door depicting her ‘specialty’. The walls are full of graffiti left by customers or by the prostitutes themselves, usually comments (nowadays we would probably call them reviews), boastings, or insults and complaints (regarding venereal diseases contracted there).

The funniest part of the differences between sexuality in Ancient Rome and sexuality now is the penises. They are everywhere. In Latin phallus, the penis wasn’t only the emblem of men’s masculinity or a symbol of fertility: it was also supposed to have powers to ward off the evil eye and other malevolent forces. Pompeii is then full of graffiti, pictures, engravings, low relieves, mosaics of penises. My audio guide talked about it like it was nothing: “On the wall behind the counter of the taberna, a sign for customers, the name of the owner, a penis”; “On the floor of the changing room, a mosaic depicting several items, such as a cornucopia, fruits, penises”. It was hilarious, but also interesting if you think about it.

Vicolo del Lupanare, Pompei
The Vicolo del Lupanare.

Art in Pompeii is not only about sexuality, of course. There are many villas full of treasures. Two of the most famous are the House of the Faun, so called for a bronze statue of a dancing faun found in the impluvium, and the Villa of the Mysteries.

The House of the Faun was where the famous Alexander Mosaic was uncovered (now in Naples National Archeological Museum), while Villa of the Mysteries was given this name for a series of beautiful frescoes found on the walls of one of the rooms. This last villa is placed on the outskirts of Pompeii; to reach it, you need to cross the Necropolis of Porta Ercolano, a long road with graves on either side. Both villas are beautiful examples of rich Pompeians dwellings. My feet really enjoyed the long walk to see them. I probably should have worn something more comfortable than flat sandals. Probably.

When they were not enjoying their villas or the brothels, ancient Pompeians loved to spend their spare time at the Amphitheater, which is kind of a Colosseum, only smaller and older. It actually had the same purpose: gladiator fights.

Gladiator fights were extremely popular in Ancient Rome; they were also extremely gruesome, but this is why they were popular. You could say that gladiators had fans, tons of them. Also fights among the public were not uncommon: in 59 AD there was one so big that the Senate decided to close the Amphitheater for two years.

Flash forward to 1972: Pink Floyd played here and shot a movie-documentary, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Flash forward to when I visited it: I loved the shade of the cypresses planted outside the Amphitheater. When visiting Pompeii during Spring or Summer, it’s always a good idea to bring some sunscreen and a hat or parasol.

Necropoli, Pompei
The Necropolis of Porta Ercolano.

Scattered around Pompeii are several tabernae, which were like our modern snack-bars. Huge jars were set in the counters, and customers could choose from a wide variety of typical food, hot or cold.

The main difference between our modern snack-bars (or even fast-foods) and Roman tabernae was the food: we now have a lot of ingredients that never reached Ancient Rome, for example, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and sugar. Ancient Romans didn’t have pasta or pizza but consumed lots of vegetables and fish. Their trademark condiment was garum, a delicious fermented fish sauce made of the blood and intestines of fish. It was used as a condiment, a seasoning, and a sauce, and it basically killed off the flavor of any kind of food it was mixed with. Ancient Romans loved it. Luckily, we now have a different taste for food in Italy.

Let’s think about a day in the life of a (moderately rich) ancient Pompeian. He would wake up in the morning in his awesome villa with awesome water pipes, have a frugal breakfast, and then go out, heading for the forum, where he would hold business meetings and talk about politics. For lunch, he would stop for a quick bite in a taberna, have some bread and cheese with garum, maybe, or a cup of hot wine (they used to mix wine with hot water when it was cold). Then he could go to the baths to relax a bit and chat with friends, or maybe to the Amphitheater to see the gladiators fight. Cena, dinner, would probably be consumed back in the villa, in a room called triclinium, lying on a sort of little couch. After dinner, he would maybe think of going to a brothel. Hard life, definitely.

Rovine di Pompei
Pure beauty.

So, if you’re planning a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum, keep a few simple things in mind: comfortable shoes, sunscreen, camera, water, awesomeness.

My first visit to Pompeii ended only because my feet could not take me any further. That place is a complete wonder, and I don’t think I will ever grow tired of visiting it. Nor will the thousands of tourists that cross the globe every year to come see its beauty.


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