Today was the day we journeyed back to 79 CE, when we visited the ancient preserved city of Pompeii. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii was buried in 25 meters of ash, becoming a city frozen in time, until early excavations during the reign of King Charles of the Bourbon Dynasty led to its rediscovery.
As we trudged up the steep hill to the entrance of the city, we walked on large cobblestones wet from the rain, admiring the many sites where homes once stood and families once lived. Pompeii originated as a port city, with close trade relations with many lucrative civilizations, such as the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans. The city attracted wealthy tourists even then, and much like the city of Naples we are staying in now, Pompeii was a very large, urban area. The population ranged between 11,000 and 12,000, but somewhat unfortunately, we only saw two petrified bodies today.
The city was founded by the Oscans but in the 5th century BCE was captured by the Samnites. The Samnites had a complicated relationship with Rome and ultimately revolted against Rome in the year 80 BCE, and after their failure became a part of the Roman Empire. From that point on, there was a period of “Romanization” in Pompeii, which is evident in the forum in the center of the city that reflects the styles of their Roman counterparts.
In 62 CE, an earthquake rocked the city, prompting renovations that were never finished because, in 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted and stopped the developing city in its tracks. Over many years since its discovery, patrons have attempted to renovate the city without using proper tools and processes, and after years of this kind of mismanagement and misallocation of funding, the ruins fell into a state of disrepair in the early 21st century. A recent surge in funding from UNESCO has stimulated proper restoration of the ruins. Today we saw many projects that were still developing, and it looks like the city is on its way to recapturing some of its former glory. The city was remarkably intact, and walking through the streets left us with an undeniable nostalgia and eerie sense that the city was still alive.
First, we saw the Temple of Apollo, which was built in the 2nd century BCE, and was a hybrid of Greek and Roman architectural styles. Outside of the temple would have been the standard for weights and measures, alongside a smaller altar used for grain and incense sacrifices for the gods. In the center, the cella could still be identified, which would have been the room containing Apollo’s statue and the city treasury.
Next, we toured the city’s basilica, which would have been a two-story building that regulated government affairs and was most likely bordered by other government buildings. It was surrounded by columns that mixed the Greek Ionic and Corinthian styles and was filled with large cult statues.
Afterwards, we meandered through the forum, which contained the Temple of Jupiter, an important feature of religious life in the city. Also within the forum was a statue to commemorate Eumachia, the patron of the Guild of the Fullers, which would have been similar to a worker’s union for artisans who tanned hides. Eumachia gives us insight into the role of women in the city, some of whom were independently wealthy.
Another feature within the forum was the Acanthus, which was an ornate sort of door frame that showed different scenes from nature all tied together with images of leaves. This was a standard motif in Augustan era art and was a way for the people of Pompeii to show their allegiance to and love for the Emperor Augustus (today, we would just put an “I <3 Augustus” bumper sticker on the back of our cars).
We also visited many smaller homes and the marketplace, which served as the center of city activity and featured common styles of frescoes on the walls that could also be seen in large urban homes. Historians have decided that Pompeii had three dominant styles of art with three different purposes: to replicate different types of architecture, to create visual illusions, and to decorate homes and public areas.
Beyond the necropolis at the edge of the city, we entered the more suburban section of Pompeii and toured the “Villa dei Misteri”, whose owner is debated, but is speculated to have been a freed slave. The room that gives this Villa its name is the triclinium, which is believed to have been the private dining room of the family. The wall features a large fresco, immaculately preserved and depicting the initiation process into the cult of Dionysus. The cult of Dionysus was considered a “mystery religion” because it cannot be understood until you are formally initiated into it. Mystery religions were criticized for being primarily associated with women, as well as for their foreign and secretive nature. There were many mystery religions during this time, one of which was an early form of Christianity.
Our final stop was one of an estimated 30 city brothels, which was treated slightly differently in Pompeii’s society than it would be now, as prostitution was a taxed, legitimized form of work, often performed by slaves or other poor citizens. Men were nearly expected to visit the brothel, though not excessively, but the stigma around the prostitutes themselves still remained. Many of the erotic frescoes we saw in yesterday’s museum were found in these brothels.
After touring this ancient city in rainy, cold weather, we were eager to return to the warmth of our hotel rooms, but were side(train)tracked (ha, PUNpeii) when our train did not arrive and we were forced to wait in freezing rain and wind for another train to safely deliver us through the metro system, back to Via Toledo.
Even though the weather was miserably cold (and Mike had no sympathy for us (and Erin cried a little)), touring these ancient ruins warmed our hearts and minds with knowledge.
Peace, love, and Pompeii,
Mary and Erin
P.S. Tomorrow, we will finally be able to appropriately use the phrase “when in Rome” on our Instagram captions!