They pronounce it "Pom-pay-e". I always had an idea that you went down into Pompeii with torches, by the way of damp, dark stairways, just as you do in silver mines, and traversed gloomy tunnels with lava overhead and something on either hand like dilapidated prisons gouged out of the solid earth, that faintly resembled houses. But you do nothing of the kind.
Mark Twain - The Innocents Abroad - 1869.
Rear side of House of the Ship Europa which has been replanted with the vines which covered the archaeological area before the excavations
At Pompeii the ground may be dug up and turned topsy turvy, without any risk, and at a small expence, the land lying over it being of little value. Formerly indeed it used to produce the most delicious wine, but that it now produces is so middling that the country would suffer very little by the entire destruction of its vineyards.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann - Critical account of the situation and destruction by the first eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius, of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabia - written in 1762 and translated into English in 1771
I continued my journey (from Herculaneum) through a most delightful populous country, between Vesuvius and the sea to Torre della Nunziata (where a large Roman villa was discovered in the 1960s), and from thence two miles further to the hillocks formed by the ashes that were cast upon the town of Pompeii, by the eruption of the year seventy-nine. (..) The center of the city is yet hidden under the vineyards. (..) The statue of Isis was not found on the pedestal when the area was uncovered; but as the root of a vine was growing directly upon it, there is reason to suppose that some peasant had discovered the statue, in making a hole for his plant, and disposed of it long before government had declared any intentions of digging in these grounds.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Mount Vesuvius seen from the Forum (see it in an 1845 photograph)
On the coast we have Neapolis, (..), Herculaneum, Pompeii, from which Mount Vesuvius may be seen at no great distance.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book III - Translation by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley
Mount Vesuvius by the Italians called Monte di Somma, stands about eight miles to the eastward of Naples. It is famous for its fiery eruptions, as well as for the earthquakes and other calamities it occasions to the neighbouring country. It stands alone in the middle of a fruitful plain near the shore. (..) The eruptions from this terrible place have been very numerous, some of which have happened in our age, to the great terror of the inhabitants and devaluation of the country.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The place is inclosed and guarded to prevent pilfering and the admission of improper persons. Swinburne
Pompeii is the oldest archaeological site in the world as the first excavations aimed at unearthing its buildings started in 1748. Most Grand Tour travellers of the XVIIIth century visited the ancient town and many of them wrote about it in letters and books. All made references to Mount Vesuvius and tried to guess how Pompeii was covered by the ashes erupted by the volcano in 79 AD.
I infer that Pompeii stood upon an arm of the sea, and served as
a staple for the inland towns; that this inlet has been since
choaked up by immense loads of ashes thrown out of the
mountain, and the sea confined to its present limits by the
raising of the land. (..) The alterations the face of this country has undergone at
different periods must have been very striking and numerous, as it is clear to demonstration, that Vesuvius had
emitted flames many ages before the first eruption recorded in history; Pompeii, which was destroyed at that
time, is not only paved with lava, but actually stands upon
alternate strata of volcanic ashes and decomposed vegetation,
as is apparent in the wells and other subterraneous cavities. Swinburne
When one considers the distance of this town from Vesuvius, it is clear that the volcanic matter which overwhelmed it could not have been carried hither, either by any sudden impetus of the mountain, or by the wind. We must rather suppose that these stones and ashes had been floating for a time in the air, like clouds, until at last they fell upon the doomed city. In order to form a clear and precise idea of this event, one has only to think of a mountain village buried in snow.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - March 1787 - translation by Charles Nisbeth.
Pompeii lay closer to the sea than it does today and it had its own port at the mouth of a nearby river. Unlike Naples it was not founded by Greek settlers, but by the Osci, an Italian tribe, in the VIth century BC. It then became an important town of the Samnites, another Italic tribe opposing the hegemony of Rome over southern Italy.
It eventually became a Roman colony in 80 BC.
The beauty of the Bay of Naples led to the construction of many villas, including some by the emperors. Baiae in particular, at the north-western end of the gulf, was chosen for its position on the sea (Emperor Hadrian died there in 138 AD) , but luxury villas have been found in the outskirts of Pompeii too.
Goethe and his friends began to recover their spirits as we sat in the pergola of a modest inn looking out over the sea, and ate a frugal meal. The blue sky and the glittering sea enchanted us. The day was extremely fine. The view towards Castell a Mare and Sorrento, near and incomparable.
(above) Garden of the Fugitives: casts of people who tried to escape through nearby Porta Nocera; (below) 2019 Exhibition at Scuderie del Quirinale: cast of a child from Casa del Bracciale d'Oro
We have a first hand description of what happened in 79 AD thanks to a long letter by Pliny the Younger in which he described the events preceding the death of Pliny the Elder, his uncle. The latter was the admiral of the Roman fleet stationed at Cape Miseno, near Baiae, and he decided to reach the coast at the foot of Mount Vesuvius to better understand what was going on. Once there he discussed with a friend whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields. That same choice had been made by the inhabitants of Pompeii: some of those who fled to the sea saved their lives, those who stayed home were buried by the ashes.
Next to the wonder of going up and down the streets, and in and out of the houses, and traversing the secret chambers of the temples of a religion that has vanished from the earth, and finding so many fresh traces of remote antiquity: as if the course of Time had been stopped after this desolation, and there had been no nights and days, months, years, and centuries, since: nothing is more impressive and terrible than the many evidences of the searching nature of the ashes, as bespeaking their irresistible power, and the impossibility of escaping them.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
Archaeologists have made some casts of the dead by injecting plaster in holes found in the solidified ashes which contained bones. This technique was developed in 1863 by Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist in charge of the excavations and it was eventually adopted for other archaeological sites. At Herculaneum many skeletons were found in shelters for boats.
Faring out to Pompeii of a Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed there, for the only time I can recall, the sweet chance of a late hour or two, the hour of the lengthening shadows, absolutely alone. The impression remains ineffaceable; it was to supersede half-a-dozen other mixed memories, the sense that had remained with me, from far back, of a pilgrimage always here beset with traps and shocks and vulgar importunities, achieved under fatal discouragements. Even Pompeii, in fine, haunt of all the cockneys of creation, burned itself, in the warm still eventide, as clear as glass, or as the glow of a pale topaz, and the particular cockney who roamed without a plan and at his ease, but with his feet on Roman slabs, his hands on Roman stones, his eyes on the Roman void, his consciousness really at last of some good to him, could open himself as never before to the fond luxurious fallacy of a close communion, a direct revelation.
Henry James - Italian Hours - 1909
(left) View of the walls near Porta Nocera; (right) a tower in the north-western part of the walls
The excavations have not been pursued with regularity,
but carried on in different situations, just as hope or caprice
actuated the minds of the engineers. (..) The principal exertions are made near the walls and gates. Swinburne
The walls have been traced throughout their whole extent, though a portion only, which was excavated in 1814, is open to our examination. (..) The towers were square, and apparently of many stories. They covered the entire breadth of the wall, were pierced by archways to allow a free passage to the troops, and had little sallyports at their base to afford an exit in time of siege. They are evidently more recent than the walls, being constructed of small pieces of tufa stuccoed at the sides, and are all more or less ruined.
John Murray - Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy - 1853
Pompeii was founded on a terrace which provided a natural defence. It was strengthened by ditches and walls. The length of the walls is approximately two miles and the area within the walls. The inhabitants at the time of the eruption were in the region of 20,000.
(left) Porta Marina; (right) Porta Stabia (see a 1909 painting by A. Pisa showing the other side of the gate)
Eight gates have been identified in the walls of Pompeii. Their names are modern: Porta Marina is the gate closest to the sea, but it did not lead to the harbour, which most likely was linked to Pompeii by a road starting from Porta Stabia. The neighbourhood near this gate was a working-class one made up of modest houses, shops, workshops and hospitality outlets.
Fresco from Villa San Marco at Castellammare di Stabia (at a temporary exhibition in Rome). It was found in 1952 and it depicts an astronomical instrument with brass rings which are moved by personifications of Spring and Autumn with the help of putti
Stabiae (today's Castellammare di Stabia) was another ancient town destroyed in 79. Archaeologists have found evidence of several villas which were built there before the eruption.
The town has a roughly elliptical shape, rather than the rectangular one which is typical of those founded by the Romans following the pattern of their military camps, but the urban layout of Pompeii was roughly consistent with the traditional orthogonal grid of Roman towns. This consistency was partly due to the reconstruction of the town after a major earthquake. The area near the Forum was rapidly rebuilt, but some neighbourhoods were still in ruin when the ashes covered Pompeii.
Via Stabiana (Cardo, north-south axis); the area to its right/west was the first to be excavated (see a 1909 painting by A. Pisa showing the street going uphill)
Fiorelli divided the area of the ancient town into nine regiones (neighbourhoods) and numbered all the insulae (blocks of buildings) they contained and each building of an insula to facilitate the exact identification of houses and monuments. The VIth, VIIth and VIIIth regiones, to the west of Via Stabiana, were the first to be excavated and they include the main monuments. The other regiones and in particular the IIIrd, IVth and Vth are in part still to be excavated (or re-excavated after their buildings were destroyed by Allied bombings in August 1943).
A very small number of workmen is now employed in
uncovering this curious city; the reasons given for such
flackness, are a satiety of antiquities, and the difficulty of
finding proper spots to lay the rubbish upon; the king is
obliged to take a lease of the land he chooses to open, and
must also hire ground to deposit the earth taken out; many
projects of subscriptions and adventure have been devised for
carrying on these labours with spirit and regularity, but
hitherto none have met with the royal approbation. Swinburne
The excavation process had ups and downs. In 2013 a major project was launched for the preservation of the archaeological area and for new excavations.
Streets of Pompeii (another image of them is used as background for this page): (left) Via dell'Abbondanza, the main "decumanus", east-west street; (centre) Vicolo del Menandro; (right) near Porta Stabia
The town walls are built with large squares of lava in regular courses, and the streets are paved with the same
materials irregularly laid; the feet of horses and the wheels of carriages have worn deep marks in the lava. The distance between the wheels was exactly four feet three inches. Swinburne
Pompeii amazes one by its narrowness and littleness; confined streets, but perfectly straight, and furnished on both sides with a foot pavement. Goethe
Its streets are cleaner a hundred times than ever Pompeiian saw them in her prime.(..) I saw with my own eyes how for two hundred years at least the pavements were not repaired! — How ruts five and even ten inches deep were worn into the thick flagstones by the chariot-wheels. (..) And I do know by these signs that Street Commissioners of Pompeii never attended to their business, and that if they never mended the pavements they never cleaned them! (..) I wish I knew the name of the last one that held office in Pompeii so that I could give him a blast. I speak with feeling on this subject, because I caught my foot in one of those ruts. M. Twain
The streets had high pavements with pedestrian crossings, because the town did not have sewers. Carriages were prevented from entering the Forum by large upright slabs. Most likely the refuse was carried away daily to the gardens and fields on the backs of donkeys, similar to what Goethe noticed in Naples: Busy donkeys carry off day by day the rubbish to the gardens and farms.
(left) Fountain at the crossroads between Via Stabiana, near its end at (lost) Porta Vesuvio, and Via di Nola (see a 1909 painting by A. Pisa with a similar view); (right) spouts of other fountains
Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun. Dickens
Pompeii was supplied with water by a branch of an aqueduct built for the city of Naples at the time of Emperor Augustus. Forty public fountains distributed the water throughout the town, but the richest houses had their own fountain in the peristylum, the inner courtyard around which the rooms were arranged. Similar to what can be noticed at Herculaneum the public fountains had decorated spouts.
Latrines near the Forum (above) and at Terme Stabiane (below)
The inhabitants of Pompeii could make use of public facilities located near the Forum or at the baths and most likely near the theatres and the amphitheatre. A special type of public facility was provided by fullones (fullers, cleaners of wool) who made use of (old) urine as a cleaning fluid, because of its ammonia contents. Passers-by were invited to relieve themselves into small jars.
Most of the souvenirs which are sold in modern Pompeii are not related to the ancient town, but to the worship of a XVIIth century painting portraying Our Lady of the Rosary which is housed in a colossal basilica. It was built in 1876-1925 in a Neo-Renaissance/Baroque style.
Temples and Religion
Public Buildings near the Forum
Other Public Buildings
Other Works of Art
Villa di Poppea at Oplontis
Pompeii in the 1909 paintings by Alberto Pisa