Its story is mystical – buried alive by a once-in-a-millenial event. You can’t make it up.
The citizens of Pompeii didn’t know Mt. Vesuvius was a volcano. They didn’t even have a word for “volcano.” And it hadn’t erupted in 1,800 years.
Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 that destroyed Pompeii. Years later he described that day,
It resembled a pine more than any other tree. Like a very high tree the cloud went high and expanded in different branches… sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes.
Visit Pompeii because it is the greatest archaeological site in the world. It’s the only ancient town that is exactly as it was during its prime. It was literally frozen in time. You can peek into the lives of ancient people – see where they bathed, ate, had sex – in detail that you can’t see anywhere else.
You don’t have to imagine how it looked. It’s all still there for us to see. The completeness is unlike anywhere else. The scene at Pompeii blew me away. But that was nothing compared to the Pompeii artifacts I saw at the National Archaeological Museum. It led me on a continuing quest to find out more about Pompeii and its people.
Lowdown on the Layout
While the city hasn’t changed, it’s surroundings are dramatically different. Today, Pompeii sits several kilometers away from the sea. However, the Romans enjoyed Pompeii as a seaside resort town where they spent their holidays. Kind of like ancient Cape Cod.
Though the 150-acre site has been excavated multiple times since the middle of the 18th century, I’d estimate that about 30% of it is still unexcavated. More bodies, frescoes, mosaics, and other treasures are still buried in the ash.
Pompeii didn’t have a regular layout like most Roman towns because it sits on a rocky plateau. But the city does have the characteristic Roman grid street structure with a forum at a large intersection.
Walk from the forum on a wide, stone-paved street to the amphitheater at the other end of the site. On the way along this main street, you’ll see shops and houses on both sides.
As you wander around town, you will also see an two other theaters, a basilica, temples, schools, a large food market, a flour mill, restaurants, thermal baths, and a gymnasium. There was even a prostitution house (Lupanare).
My Don’t-Miss Sights
Pictures and graffiti tell a story at the most interesting sights. Since I visited, I’ve been reading volumes of information about them. It’s a seemingly endless project, but I’ve included a list of my favorites below.
The Casa del Fauno, one of the most impressive private villas in Pompeii. It’s gigantic – it covers an entire city block – over 30,000 ft2. The house was named after a bronze sculpture found in the courtyard, shown below.
See it because of the large-scale mosaics found here (now housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Napoli). There are so many, they take up an entire room at the museum.
Check out body casts at the Caupona di Sotericus (Garden of the Fugitives). 13 bodies were found here – the highest concentration of bodies in the city. During the excavation, the archeologists found voids in the hardened ash. To find out what they were, they the voids were filled with plaster. A genius move – the results were fascinating.
The body casts humanize the ruins like nothing else you will see.
Plaster conformed to their exact body positions at time of death. Exposure to a wave of extreme heat killed them instantly. Some faces show a faint expression and certainly their postures imply distress.
You can see the casts in a couple other locations in the site, each marked with a body on the official visitor’s map (though some aren’t marked, like this one).
Take a walk out to the Villa dei Misteri.
See it for two reasons: 1) it is the most intact villa in the city and 2) it has the most impressive fresco remaining on site. It covers three walls in the dining room, showing the initiation of a bride-to-be into the cult of the wine-goddess Dionysus. This family was serious about wine – there is also a wine-making facility located here.
Check of the Tempio di Iside, dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. See it because its wall decorations and furnishings were found almost entirely intact.
Now you’ll find all these at the National Archaeological Museum, spread throughout several rooms. The bright red from the wall decoration in a reconstruction makes a statement. Mozart visited Pompeii in 1770. The imagery stuck with him 20 years later and inspired scenes in the “Magic Flute”.
See Casa dei Vettii because of the erotic graffti at the entrance of the house.
The provocative decorations suggest that a prostitute set up shop in a room adjacent to this aristocratic house. Perhaps my modern sentiments interfere, but the contradiction of this speaks to me. Also visit the well-preserved paintings and statues in the house.
Afterward, move on to the official prostitution house, the Lupanare, that is nearby.
The Goods at the National Archaeological Museum
The museum contains phenomenal treasure and no trip to Pompeii is complete without it. A bulk of the items there are from Pompeii, particularly in the rooms dedicated to Mosaics and others for Fresoes.
Visit the “secret room” – considered to be so erotic that it was closed to the public until 2000. And they still keep it in a separate room. As we know, erotica was prevalent in the Ancient Rome. Pompeii was no different.
You must not miss the mosaic “Momento Mori”. I was struck how its philosophical theme fits just as easily in modern society as it did for Pompeiians. In it, a plumb line shows how death balances the aristocracy and the peasantry. The butterfly represents the soul and balances on the wheel of fortune.
Archaeologists found the mosaic in the dining room of a tannery. The gruesome work at tanneries involved ingredients of animal urine and feces. Perhaps the owner was making a suggestion:
Life isn’t fair, but we’re all equal when we die.
Pink Floyd liked the mosaic too:
Essentials For Your Visit
1. Pompeii is a huge site. You can see it in as little as 2 hours, or spend the whole day there. I suggest a maximum allotment of 4 hours to spend at the site.
2. I suggest going by train. Get there on line 2 (to Salerno) and get off at the Pompei stop. The train stop is just outside the gate, and parking is expensive (15€ for 5 hours).
3. The site is open everyday except major holidays.
4. There is a quiet, grass picnic area near the amfiteatro. There are benches, but no tables. Staff will allow you to re-enter the site with special permission if you want to go outside for food.
5. Pompeii has tons of visitors. When we visited, it was much quieter in the afternoon. It seems that many of the tour buses visit in the morning. Either way, prepare yourself for crowds, even in the off-season.
Pompeii is without question one of the greatest sites I’ve seen in my travels. If you haven’t seen it already, between Pompeii and the southern Italian food, Naples is a worthy destination trip. One visit wasn’t enough for me!
Is Pompeii on your bucket list? I’d love to hear in the comments below!