In ancient times, in 79 CE, a violent eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in Italy took place, in which the cities Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed, and a large number of citizens lost their lives under the ash. A visit to Pompeii city, and in particular the archaeological ruins, is a fascinating experience which gives insight into the natural disaster which had fatal consequences for the population.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 13 JUN 2020
Pompeii is located at the foot of the volcano Vesuvius in the Campania region near Naples in Italy. When meandering around the streets of present-day Pompeii, you will see no sign of the disastrous event caused by the roaring volcano, occurring two thousand years ago in the small Italian city. Anyway, as soon as you decide to visit the ruins and enter Pompeii archaeological area, the harsh details in history become very real.
In the early days both Greek people and Etruscans settled in the area around the mighty volcano situated above Pompeii. Later, the region was subject to both Hellenic and Roman settlements.
With the Samnite Wars (343-290 BC) the Roman army invaded the area, introducing the traditions of Rome. City walls were established around Pompeii, and the city got an urban structure as known from other Roman cities.
It was not only the architectural subtleties of constructions and the ingenious street design of Pompeii which were influenced, but just as much the political lines and the daily life. Pompeii now had to accept and adapt to the new status of being socii of Rome. Nevertheless, as a society, Pompeii still had some administrative autonomy.
1. Everyday life in ancient Pompeii city
Pompeii was a flourishing place with extensive agriculture and wealthy land owners cultivating their fields and orchards around the sloping hillsides of the volcano. The land was extremely fertile here due to the nature of the soil, and the harvest was always plentiful. Obviously, the neighbouring Mount Vesuvius volcano gave really excellent conditions for fruitful land. The lively volcano spread ash in the surrounding area, contributing to a soil rich in nutrients useful for the crops.
Its location at the sea was convenient for ships to arrive with goods to trade them for products from the Pompeii region in Italy. The Pompeiian farmers had an abundance of grains, fruits, nuts, olives, oil, wine and fish, and they exchanged their crops and other products for meat, salted fish and spices from other countries. As part of a relatively developed society the citizens also used Roman coins in exchange for goods.
The success, that Pompeii city experienced in terms of wealth and richness in resources, was thanks to the active volcano above the city.
Strangely enough, this same volcanic source eventually also caused the downfall of the Pompeiian culture. The volcano, which had provided the Pompeiian citizens with so much prosperity, ended up bringing the thriving society to an end.
2. Mount Vesuvius volcano eruption
In 79 CE the Pompeiians woke up to an increased activity from Vesuvius. The bakers had fresh bread in the ovens and people expected the daily activities to begin as they usually did. At that time there was notably no warning system to alert people days in advance, as we have today. Seismic activity was so common in this part of Italy that people didn’t really pay any special attention to it. They had learned to live with the volatile environment and had at that moment no idea of what awaited them during the next couple of days!
Multiple earth quakes shook the earth around Herculaneum and Pompeii. People were pretty unprepared for the heavy volcano explosion that now took place on a summer day in August. The blast sent a plume of material and volcanic gases into the sky, rising to a height which enabled people to see it from hundreds of kilometres away.
The sky was not clear, and whitish and greyish volcanic ash started drifting towards the earth. Around noon the raining ash blocked the sun, and soon a thick layer of ash covered they city of Pompeii. Also the town of Herculaneum and the other neighbouring communities were struck by the falling volcanic material.
The following morning at dawn volcanic gasses were released from the depth of the glowing volcano to an extent that they soon approached the city of Pompeii . The lava and the ash poured down the sloping hillsides of Mount Vesuvius.
Some victims burned inside from the overwhelming hot air and fumes they inhaled and died almost instantly. Others suffered relentlessly and died of suffocation due to the poisonous gasses. Many of the casualties were found in semi-curled positions, immediately buried in the ash right in the middle of each their activities. In this way they were found many centuries later, preserved for posterity.
Pompeii was completely buried and was left without any life at all. Some citizens had managed to flee and rescued themselves from the deadly eruption, but others were not that fortunate. It is estimated that around 2,000 people died from the volocano eruption around Pompeii. Also Herculaneum and the other neighbouring cities such as Stabiae, Boscoreale and Torre Annunziata were devastated in the probably most deadly volcano eruption in Europe. The region lost in a few days its rich culture, magnificent residential villas with beautifully decorated apartments, thermal baths and everything else which was related to the ancient civilisation.
3. Rediscovery of Pompeii in Italy
Pompeii disappeared for many years and was only rediscovered in 1748 under a thick layer of ash, earth and debris. Surprisingly, the city of Pompeii was relatively intact. Buildings, artifacts and former Pompeiians were left in the situations that they had found themselves in on the very August day in 79 CE.
Their skeletons, their tools, their kitchens and their products were well enough preserved to reveal incredible details about the everyday life in Pompeii at the time. During the excavations, most astonishingly, preserved food like dried fruit and loaves of bread was even found!
4. Visit the ruins in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the volcano
Modern day Pompeii is a small city with an amazing cathedral at the central square. Cafés, restaurants, shops, fountains, benches, archaeology, ruins, gelato, pastries … Pompeii has it all! It is a lively Italian town full of atmosphere. You will even find a local bakery or grocery shop which can prepare you a sandwich or two with local bread and whatever fillings you choose such as sliced prosciutto, smoked ham, Provolone cheese and maybe some pickles.
Pompeii has its own local vibe and is a pleasant and convenient base to stay for a few days to discover the ruins of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. You may also consider combining it with a day tour to the picture-postcard Amalfi coast or Naples!
You can easily take the train between Naples and Pompeii. There are even two train stations here: Pompei Scavi – Villa Dei Misteri and Pompeii Station.
In Pompeii you will visit the amazing ruins of the ancient city existing before year 79 CE. You should count at least half a day – maybe more – for the visit since the archaeological site and ruins of Pompeii cover a really vast area.
The site reveals amazingly preserved ruins of an ancient Roman city with homes, restaurants, artisans’ workshops, retail stores, sculptures, forum, gymnasium, an amphitheatre, basilicas, and many other public buildings. It is like a ‘frozen’ image of the Pompeii 2000 years ago with impressive villas and painted frescos – which later influenced the Neoclassisism.
A large number of the artifacts recovered in Pompeii are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. The Antiquarium, the small museum you can visit here in Pompeii, which is part of the archaeological site, showcases plaster casts of the Pompeii inhabitants as they were caught and ash-covered in the volcano eruption.
When taking the train from Pompeii to the Ercolano Scavi train station, you will have the Herculaneum ruins within a short walking distance.
The archeological site, you can visit here, is much smaller than at Pompeii. Anyway, Herculaneum is even better preserved than Pompeii, since a deeper layer of ash covered this site being closer to the volcano. In Herculaneum residential buildings still have multiple floors and wooden furnishings preserved – unlike in Pompeii. Both mosaics and sculptures can be viewed here at the archeological site.
There is also a fabulous museum, the Herculaneum MAV – Virtual Archaeological Museum in Ercolano, which in a very instructive way brings the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii to life!
Other sites worth visiting to view more archaeological sites include Stabiae, Boscoreale and Torre Annunziata.
To complete your Pompeii visit you can also ascend the volcano to the Crater of Mount Vesuvius. You can take the Autobus EAV from Circumvesuviana Pompei – Villa dei Misteri stop or the Circumvesuviana Ercolano Scavi stop.
Another option is to take the Busvia del Vesuvio. Buses depart from the Circumvesuviana Pompei Villa dei Misteri train station and arrive at the entrance of the Mount Vesuvius National Park. From here, you continue in a 4×4 bus to climb the volcano road! From the stop atop the volcano, a guide will take you to the crater on foot. It is an interesting experience to add to the archeological visit!
Visit Pompeii Ruins, Volcano & City in Italy.
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