Visiting Italy's Lost City of Pompeii
One of the most popular visitor attractions in Italy is without a doubt the ruins of the ancient lost city of Pompeii. Buried by the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, the excavated site is a fascinating glimpse back in time to the days of Roman life in the first century AD. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in1997, Pompeii attracts over two million visitors every year.
History of Pompeii
The history of Pompeii actually goes back much further than the first century. Archaeological digs at the site indicate that the community was most likely founded sometime around the 7th to 6th century BC. It is also clearly evident from core samples taken from the site that Pompeii had suffered from the wrath of Mount Vesuvius prior to the devastating eruption in 79AD.
Despite its prior history with the volcano, Pompeii prospered and in the one hundred and fifty years leading up to the eruption saw a building boom of sorts. The town, which had a population of about twenty thousand residents, was quite sophisticated for its day with a large amphitheatre, an aqueduct system to supply water, numerous public baths, and many private homes and businesses.
At the time of the eruption Pompeii was at its peak in Roman society and the community was a popular holiday spot for Romans. Located about five miles from Mount Vesuvius and very near the coast, Pompeii was situated in a beautiful setting that made for the perfect vacation destination in its day.
Life in Pompeii in the first century AD was one that required a certain amount of tolerance to minor earthquakes. Their frequency made these minor quakes nothing more than a nuisance and an afterthought, until February 5th, 62AD, when a severe earthquake inflicted considerable damage to Pompeii and the surrounding area. Most of the buildings in Pompeii were damaged during this quake and this started a period of rebuilding in the city, which was still ongoing seventeen years later when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD.
Historical records indicate that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred on August 24th, 79AD. This account of the eruption was recorded by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and author who witnessed the event from across the Bay of Naples. His uncle, Pliny the Elder (makes sense), was Admiral of the Imperial Navy at the time and was killed while trying to rescue evacuees from Pompeii.
Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption was recorded in two letters, which were written twenty five years after the eruption. These letters are the only surviving eyewitness accounts of the event and are considered to be of incredible historical significance because of their extremely accurate portrayal of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Excavations of the city, however, suggest that the eruption may have actually occurred about three months later in October or November. This finding is supported by a number of clues uncovered during excavation, including the fact that people buried by the ash appeared to be wearing clothing more appropriate for colder weather. Also, the fruits and vegetables being sold in the markets were typical of October, while the fruit one would expect in August was being sold in dried form.
Scientists can find no reason or explanation for the discrepancy and this mystery remains unsolved. The generally accepted date of the eruption, however, is still August 24, 79AD.
No matter when the eruption actually occurred, the results were clearly devastating. Pompeii and the nearby town of Herculaneum were both completely buried by up to 25 meters of hot volcanic ash in a matter of hours. Upwards of twenty thousand people were killed in the violent eruption.
Scientists have concluded recently that most of the deaths from Pompeii were likely the result of extreme heat produced from the volcano and not ash suffocation as previously thought. Simulations of the eruption have indicated that the event was likely to have caused temperature surges of up to 250 degrees celsius at ten kilometers from the vent. Temperatures this high would have been sufficient to cause instantaneous death.
Buried for centuries, it was not until 1748 that Pompeii was rediscovered and excavations of the area began. The remarkable preservation of the ancient city is due to the fact that it was buried for such a long time and not subjected to the deteriorating forces of air and water.
Over the last 250 years or so, excavations have unearthed about two-thirds of the city. While this is great for tourists visiting Pompeii, it has created a whole new problem with an increasingly rapid rate of deterioration of the ruins.
Continued excavation of Pompeii has been pretty much halted today with funding going instead toward preservation of the site. While visitors are granted access to a large portion of the excavated site, much of it is now off limits to the general public. Even with the tighter controls in place today, however, visitors can easily spend a couple of days to see the entire site, which is quite extensive.
Getting to Pompeii is a fairly easy task with the Circumvesuviana train stopping at the Pompei Scavi (train station). The station is approximately 100 meters from the excavation site.
The train is the best way to get to Pompeii and is about a thirty minute ride from Sorrento, a little longer from Naples. The Circumvesuviana will cost you between 1.80 euro and 3.20 euro depending on your point of departure. You can also take the blue SITA buses from Naples for the same cost.
If you are driving to Pompeii there are many self-park lots near the entrance to the excavation site for a nominal fee.
Entrance fees to the excavation site are as follows:
- 11 Euro for adults
- 5.50 Euro for EU Citizens
- Free for EU Citizens under 18 or over 65
- Audio guide cost 6.50 Euro/10 Euro for two
- April to October daily - 8:30am to 7:30pm
- November to May daily - 8:30am to 5:00pm
- Last ticket sold is 90 minutes prior to closing.
Tour Guides are usually available outside the site and can be hired for approximately 12 euro (does not include entry fee). Just be sure you can understand them before you hire them? You can also arrange a tour guide ahead of time if you desire.
Wear proper footwear. This is an archaeological excavated site and footing can be tricky in areas.
Bring water with you
Utilize the guidebook or a tour guide
Make sure you have a good map of the site.
Plan on spending enough time to do the site justice.
There is a restaurant on the premises if need be.
What To See
There is much to see at Pompeii so plan on spending as much time as possible here. There are numerous notable sites including the amphitheatre, which was completed in 80BC. Built to hold up to 20,000 spectators, this amphitheatre is one of the best preserved and earliest surviving Roman theatres in Italy.
The forum was the center of civilian life in Pompeii and is surrounded by many buildings, which were used for business, government and religious purposes.
As you walk the grounds of ancient Pompeii you will pass all the normal things that encompassed the lives of people during this era. There are homes, temples, bakeries, bars, and restaurants. The streets, which are made of stone blocks are unmistakable, and still contain the worn, smooth tracks created by the carriages of the time.
Many of the named homes such as the House of the Vettii, the House of the Ancient Hunt, and the House of the Tragic Poet, contain impressive frescoes from the period, which are remarkably well preserved.
And of course as we are in Italy, there are the remains of numerous temples including the Temple of Apollo, which dates to 575 BC and contains some of the oldest remains in Pompeii.
Perhaps the most amazing and grizzly discovery from Pompeii was made in 1860, when excavators noticed voids in the ash that contained human bones. They soon realized that these voids were left by human bodies that had decayed.
A technique was soon developed whereby plaster would be poured into the space to recreate the forms of the victims. The results have produced a sad and compelling tale of the last moments of many of the victims.
The Garden of the Fugitives is one of the more solemn areas of the site, which depicts the final resting position of numerous individuals including children. One can only begin to wonder at the agony of their final moments.
Satellite view of Mount Vesuvius
Certainly a walk through the Pompeii excavation site is about as close as one can come to reliving ancient Roman times. It really is hard to believe that this city prospered almost two thousand years ago and was then frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The collection of various artifacts from the site, many of which are on display, is simply astonishing. I am certain that your visit to Pompeii will be a day you will not soon forget.
Enjoy your visit to this archaeological wonder.
Ciao for now.