Mount Vesuvius from Pompeii’s Forum.
It was a bad day for Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD with great balls of fire.
The 160 acre walled city had a population of about 20,000 in 79 AD. It is unknown how many died when a fissure of the Mount Vesuvius volcano collapsed (still visible today) and a pyroclastic cloud of 1,300° sulphuric gas and fine pumice roared down the slope at 70 miles per hour to engulf the port city overlooking the Gulf of Naples.
Terme Suburbane and main gate, with entrance ramp, right.
But the people of Pompeii had been forewarned years and months in advance about the impending doom. In 62 AD an earthquake destroyed much of the region and Pompeii had not been totally rebuilt.
Although people had no seismographs, plates and dishes fell off their shelves for months, foundations cracked, the earth rumbled, wisps of smoke and puffs of ash belched from the maw above. Over millions of years Vesuvius had erupted over 50 times, but not in anyone’s historical memory.
Temple in the Foro
It was a grisly end for those in the gated fortress. After removing tons of ash and pumice from the site in modern times, forensic archaeologists noted that many of the recovered skulls were pigmented red due to the instantaneous congealing of the brains and boiling of blood literally sucked through the bone by the intense heat.
The fine ash set like concrete in moist human lungs; hands had no time to clutch throats. The incineration was so fast and so intense heads burst, flesh vaporized from standing skeletons. There were no last second pleas to the gods because they died within a second.
There was no suffering — the dead were buried under collapsed roofs or debris; ash soared 100,000 feet into the air to rain back as ash-fall. DNA tests on the contorted carbonized bodies frozen in place as time capsules (called cadaver spasms) were covered in the ash and preserved like plaster-of-Paris. Tests showed everyone was mal-nourished, rich and poor, young and old, typical of the Roman populi. Everyone had the bacterial disease brucellosis due to eating and drinking unpasteurized cheese and milk. Much has been learned about the ancient city through the structures, artifacts, and bodies; walking through the site was a stunning expression of history.
The Foro or Forum included markets
and administration buildings and temples.
I arrived in Naples on the ferry-train that linked Messina, Sicily with the Italian peninsula and for hours I zipped past Tyrrhenian Sea beaches and through short tunnels. Upon arrival in Napoli I was told by a train ticket agent that the metro underground was permanently closed, no doubt to deep fault lines and cracks caused by the still active Vesuvio — the modern name of Vesuvius. The subway is a separate network from the rail line.
Naples was hot and crowded, in fact it is the most densely congested city in all of Europe, but only the 9th largest in population; it is hemmed in by the sea and the mountain. Seismographs monitor the volcano activity but I wondered how the population would evacuate during the next eruption. The last eruption was in 1944 as the Allies landed for the drive to liberate Rome.
I decided to evacuate to the lovely town of Sorrento; I bought a commuter ticket and luggaged myself to the basement tracks. Track 1 of the three track lines usually leads to the Sorrento peninsula about 50 miles SE of Naples station, but the train sign will flash the proper destination. Pompeii is actually a suburb and surrouneded by, Naples; it is equidistant between Naples’ main train station and Sorrento. The Scavi-Villa dei Misteri (Circumvesuviana station) is located at the main gate of old Pompeii — don’t get off at the new Pompeii station a mile farther down the private rail tracks; I noted on my map the shortened version of Pompeii Scavi station, which consists of two tracks with two side platforms; platform 1 serves trains to Naples while platform 2 serves trains to Sorrento; tickets from Naples run about €6 to Pompeii and another €6 to Sorrento.
Sorrento is a great base for adventure.
Sorrento is a cruise ship stop and there are many iconic modern and ancient sites in the area. I chose the Nice Hotel because it was only a block from the train station, but located down a terraced street with steep steps leading to cafes, gelato stops, bars, pizza joints, and delis. Sorrento makes a great base for visiting the Lattari Mountains with visits to Pompeii, Herculaneum, Amalfi, Ravello, Naples, and Capri. An easy way to explore the Amalfi Coast is to get on the Hop-on Hop-Off red buses at the Sorrento train station. At Amalfi town I hopped another excursion bus for an additional €4 to visit the cliff-side town of Ravello, famous for its annual jazz festival.
Via dell’ Abbodanza.
I spent four days in the area, three of them wonder wandering the ancient streets of Pompeii. Take the 10 a.m. train from Sorrento because the earlier trains are packed with commuters heading to work in Naples.
Then take one of the later trains back to avoid the crowds. But if you plan to tour Vesuvio by the tourist buses leaving the tourist office in Pompeii you need to take an earlier train, the buses don’t run after 10 a.m.
A small tourist office is outside Pompeii’s ticket gate that offers free maps but spring for a €3 map that is more detailed with street names. Packaged tours can be purchased from the tourist office but I found going it alone was cheaper and more independent with the Hop-On service in Sorrento.
Fresh drinks from ancient rains
Pompeii was never directly on the beach but resides on a slope of Vesuvius. Today the town is about 1000 meters farther from the coast due to siltation in the Gulf of Naples. The natural slope of the streets provided easy rainwater runoff. Huge stepping stones, rectangular cut blocks, offer a dry walk over the wet paving stones, smoothed by years of sandal traffic. A few of the street stones showed rutted lines, like a rail line, carved by ox carts. The Pompeii plumbing still performs at the numerous drinking stations. A carved god stone head spews water just like then but now has a modern tap. The water is clean and fresh, filtered through the pumice. You are drinking water that fell back in those days.
The Foro and market square is just up the ramp of the main entrance just beyond the ticket booth (€13 adult daily). The market square was where citizens bought and sold livestock, slaves, produce, and other goods. One thing I noted on the grid layout of the city is that many of the main street corner shops had a marbled counter with a pit for cooking food. These were the cafés and mini-markets of the day; these 711s were everywhere. A modern convenience store and café is within the archaeological park just off the market square, with modern tourist prices. Nearby are long display shelves of ancient cookware, wine and oil amphora, and daily utensils, heaped behind wire fenced walls.
Pompeii’s Teatro Grande held about 2,000 patrons.
In the far end of the city is the amphitheater Teatro Grande, with a smaller open-air Odeon (Teatro Piccolo) theater for plays. singing, musicals, and debates. Pompeii was not only the capital of the region, but the cultural hub. The poet Virgil staged plays here. A porticoed meeting or agora area, now called Quadriportico dei Teatri, was where the culturati mingled — more wine Flavius — before entering a performance; it had the only lawn I saw in the city. On a ridge overlooking the amphitheater was the gymnasium, where gladiators and athletes trained By no means was the amphitheater as large or as impressive as the Coliseum that would open in Rome a year later after Pompeii died.
About a third of the city is still buried under ash and construction fences block street passages, but there are no plans to excavate the rest of the city. Most of the people lived in small, oil lit hovels, but a few of the noble family villas have been fully restored with tiled roofs and working pools and replanted gardens. The poor-side-of-the-tracks homes are still mostly roofless. The wealthiest villas seemed to congregate around the gymnasium.
A reconstructed noble family villa.
Farther away and outside the walled city and past a magnificent gate is another noble villa, the most exquisite unearthed, with most of the mosaics and murals still intact. The multi roomed Villa dei Misteri offered many small gardens and fresh flowers scented the air.
A recovered mural at Villa dei Misteri.
Probably the most popular place in the city was the marbled columned bathhouse. The pool is still filled in because so many tourists tramp through; just across the street is the main event, the city brothels. I noticed little metal signs (in Latin) have been erected on the stone walls at street corners signifying the street. I presume the names are modern inscriptions because everything was lost in Pompeii on that hot August day, but there was never any extensive fires in the city, just hot gas and 20 feet of rock, pumice, and ash.
Pompeii pool pillars at Terme Stabiane, one of many thermal areas in the city.
The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 unfolded in two phases over two days: a Plinianeruption that lasted 18-20 hours produced a rain of pumice southward of the cone that built up to depths of 9 feet in the city, collapsing roofs. This was, followed by a pyroclastic flow or nuée ardente in the second Peléan phase. Two pyroclastic flows engulfed Pompeii, burning and asphyxiating the stragglers who had remained behind. Oplontis and Herculaneum received the brunt of the flows and were buried in fine ash and pumice and pyroclastic deposits when the winds shifted.
The only ancient historian to witness the explosion of Vesuvius was the 17-year-old Pliny the Younger, who watched from his home in Misenum to the northwest and upwind of the volcano. The Romans grew accustomed to minor earth tremors in the region; Pliny the Younger wrote that they “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania”. Campania was the the region Pompeii governed.
A villa and mural once buried under ash.
Small earthquakes shook the city on 20 August 79 AD, becoming more frequent over the next four days, but the warnings were not recognized. Around 1 p.m. Mount Vesuvius violently exploded, throwing up a high-altitude column from which ash began to fall, blanketing the area. Rescues and escapes occurred during this time. In fact, Pliny the Elder, uncle to Pliny the Younger, was the commander of the Roman fleet stationed in Misenum.
Pliny the Younger wrote: “Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night . . . it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree; for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches. […] Occasionally it was brighter, occasionally darker and spotted, as it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders”.
Torre X overlooks Castellum Aguae at Porto Vesuvio.
Pliny the Elder launched the Roman fleet up and down the bay to save lives. He was in a lighter sail boat and landed along the coast but could not re-launch due to hot and fierce winds. He died on the coast from symptoms unknown. Pliny the Younger continues: “the sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks”, which is evidence for a tsunami. There is, however, no evidence of extensive damage from wave action.
A temple at Villa di Diomede.
There are no multi-day passes to visit Pompeii, so you have to stand in line for a new ticket daily. Just outside the main gate is a wonderful pizzeria with reasonable prices and cold Peroni beers. According to Wikipedia the word pizza was first documented in 997 AD in Gaeta and successively in different parts of Central and Southern Italy. The precursor of pizza was probably focaccia, a flat bread known to the Romans as panis focacius, to which toppings were added.
Neapolitans take pizza seriously. To be considered authentic the pie must be made with fresh ingredients, with proper dough shaping, baking time, temperature, and even the type of oven. I watched from under dappled lattice shade as my pizzaioli threw my fresh Napoli Pompeiian pie and then baked it in a wood burning oven right in front of me. He remembered me after the first pie and I returned each day for another Vesuvius lava hot treat. With pizza and Peronis it was a good day in Pompeii.
A final note about Mount Vesuvius: Spartacus and his escaped gladiators hid out on the volcano slopes for months, raiding locals for food., possibly pizzas.