Pompeii (30 minutes by train from Naples and Sorrento) is the famous Roman town destroyed and entombed in ash in the huge A.D. 79 huge eruption of by Vesuvius. It is Italy's most visited tourist attraction (the Vatican receives more but technically it is part of the Vatican State not Italy). About 2 to 4 million visitors visit the 250 acre site each year. When the famous German poet Goethe toured Pompeii in the 1780s he remarked, “Many disasters have befallen the world , but few have brought posterity so much joy.”
Forgotten for 17 centuries Pompeii lay quietly under a three-meter-thick blanket of hardened ash until it was rediscovered in 1600. The first discoveries were made by farmers who dug down below their fields and found parts of buildings. Archeologists began digging Pompeii in 1748, making it the world's oldest archaeological dig.
The discovery of Pompeii triggered an interest in all things Roman throughout Europe the same way the discovery of King Tut’s tomb set a wave of Egyptmania in the 1920s. Pompeii became an important stop on the grand tours of Europe. Tourists, some of them with shovels in hand, strolled though the ruins and took home souvenirs to decorate heir homes.
The discovery of Pompeii also set in motion a neo-classical movement in Europe in which aristocrats and monarchs attempted to recreate Rome with architecture, art and literature. Napoleon, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette all decorated their houses with Pompeiian touches. Christian dogmatists turned the event into a mortality tale highlighting the fate of those indulged in the decadent Roman lifestyle.
The artifacts unearthed at Pompeii have given archeologist valuable insights into everyday Roman life. Among the items that have been found are paintings, furniture, kitchen utensils and a bakery with 81 carbonized loaves of bread. There was lots of graffiti. Pompeii houses were mostly windowless. Their plaster walls proved t be inviting canvasses for people to express their written thoughts, some of which seem familiar today such as “Auge Loves Allotenus” and “Gaias Pumidius Dipilus was Here.”
Artistic pieces that have been unearthed include a gold bracelet of a two-headed snake that weighs half a kilogram; a silver wine goblet adorned with olives that hang off it like pearl earings; a bronze gladiator helmet sculpted with reliefs of women; a gold and silver statuette of Mercury with a small goat; and a finely-crafted necklace made of 94 ivy leaves made of gold foil. Most of these treasures are at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
History of the Excavations at Pompeii
Excavations at Pompeii began in 1748 but the identity of the site as being Pompeii was not confirmed until 1763. Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Pompeii “remained largely undisturbed, lost to history, through the rise of Byzantium, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In 1738, Maria Amalia Christine, a nobleman’s daughter from Saxony, wed Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples, and became entranced by classical sculptures displayed in the garden of the royal palace in Naples. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2015 ~|~]
“Digging began in Pompeii ten years later. Workers burrowed far more easily through the softer deposits of pumice and ash, unearthing streets, villas, frescoes, mosaics and the remains of the dead. “Stretched out full-length on the floor was a skeleton,” C.W. Ceram writes in Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, a definitive account of the excavations, “with gold and silver coins that had rolled out of bony hands still seeking, it seemed, to clutch them fast.”~|~
“In the 1860s a pioneering Italian archaeologist at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, poured liquid plaster into the cavities in the solidified ash created by the decomposing flesh, creating perfect casts of Pompeii’s victims at the moment of their deaths—down to the folds in their togas, the straps of their sandals, their agonized facial expressions. Early visitors on the Grand Tour, like today’s tourists, were thrilled by these morbid tableaux. “How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests,” mused the English writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, who visited Pompeii in the 1780s. “How horrible the certainty that such a scene might be all acted over again tomorrow; and that, who today are spectators, may become spectacles to travelers of a succeeding century.”~|~
“And Pompeii continues to amaze with fresh revelations. A team of archaeologists recently studied the latrines and drains of several houses in the city in an effort to investigate the dietary habits of the Roman empire. Middle- and lower-class residents, they found, had a simple yet healthy diet that included lentils, fish and olives. The wealthy favored fattier fare, such as suckling pig, and dined on delicacies including sea urchins and, apparently, a giraffe—although DNA evidence is currently being tested. “What makes Pompeii special,” says Michael MacKinnon of the University of Winnipeg, one of the researchers, “is that its archaeological wealth encourages us to reanimate this city.” ~|~
Excavations at Pompeii
Excavation work at Pompeii continues today, with archeological teams using everything from backhoes to dental picks to uncover the lost city's secrets. One crew is attempted to assemble an entire roof from bottle-cap-size pieces, a project that could take more than hundred years. "We've probably got another thousand years of archeology left before we finish with Pompeii," one archeologist told National Geographic.
Pompeii is far from the pristine, undisturbed site it is sometimes made out to be. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard has pointed that Pompeii is “disrupted and disturbed, evacuated and pillaged... It bears the marks (and the scars) of all kinds of histories. It has endured scavengers and looters who took to the site soon after the eruption and the ‘the rough and ready approach’ of early excavators,” making reconstructing an early history of the city difficult.” Pompeii was heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II and many of the houses tourists visit have had to be rebuilt twice.
Over the years, archaeologists have excavated golden coins with Nero's face; snake-like bracelets worn by the wife of Nero; gladiator helmets; sculptures of Nike and Venus; 500 bronze seals with names of homeowners or their administrators; and a 115-piece silver service found on the table at Meander's House. Most of these items as well as the best mosaics and frescoes are in the archeological museum in Naples. A shocking number of paintings and painted signs have been lost after vanished when exposed to air and the elements. Among these were an elaborate series of bright murals from the amphitheater’s curtain wall destroyed by frost the year after they were discovered in 1815.
Relatively little archeological work has been done under the A.D. 79 layers to determine Pompeii’s history before the eruption. From what has been ascertained so far the city was founded in the sixth century B.C. Pompeii and Herculaneum were occupied by native Oscans, Tyrrhenians and Pelasgians, and also by Samnites, Etruscans and Greek colonists. In 80 B.C., Pompeii became a Roman veteran's colony.
On inscribed graffiti at Pompeii, the historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “There are almost no literary remains from Antiquity possessing greater human interest than these inscriptions scratched on the walls of Pompeii (destroyed 79 A.D.). Their character is extremely varied, and they illustrate in a keen and vital way the life of a busy, luxurious, and, withal, tolerably typical, city of some 25,000 inhabitants in the days of the Flavian Caesars. Most of these inscriptions carry their own message with little need of a commentary. Perhaps those of the greatest importance are the ones relating to local politics. It is very evident that the so-called "monarchy" of the Emperors had not involved the destruction of political life, at least in the provincial towns. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 260-265]
Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic: “The oldest known graffiti at Pompeii also happens to be among the simplest: Gaius was here. Or, more precisely, “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here,” along with a time stamp, which historians have dated to October 3, 78 B.C. It’s a classic. Literally—as in, it is an artifact from classical antiquity—but it’s also a classic in the larger category of Things People Write on Walls. So-and-so was here (see also: Kilroy) has been one of the messages humans have scrawled, etched, and eventually Sharpied and spray painted onto public spaces for millennia. [Source: Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Mar 29, 2016 |^|]
“Much of the graffiti at Pompeii seems surprisingly modern this way. Ancient inscriptions include declarations of love (“Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”); insults (“Sanius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!”); and remembrances (“Pyrrhus to his chum Chias: I’m sorry to hear you are dead, and so, goodbye!”). There are also billboard-esque painted inscriptions that included political campaign messages, advertisements for Gladiatorial games, and other public notices—like the equivalent of a giant flyer for a lost horse. The commonplace nature of these inscriptions is part of what makes them so historically valuable. |^|
““It recreates the life of the town,” said Rebecca Benefiel, a professor of classics at Washington and Lee University. “It’s the voices of the people who were standing there, and thinking this, and writing it. That’s why the graffiti are just so special and so enthralling.” Ancient graffiti in Pompeii, in the style typical for a political campaign. (Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Flickr) |^|
“Scholars can tell, for instance, that a tavern was once beyond the wall where a welcoming greeting—“Sodales, avete,”—can still be read. Some graffiti describes how many tunics were sent to be laundered, while other inscriptions mark the birth of a donkey and a litter of piglets. People scribbled details of various transactions onto the walls of Pompeii, including the selling of slaves. They also shared snippets of literature (lines from The Aeneid were popular) and succinct maxims like, “The smallest evil, if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions.” |^|
“And then there was the trash talk. “One speaks of ‘sheep-faced Lygnus, strutting about like a peacock and giving himself airs on the strength of his good looks,’” the London-based magazine Chambers’s Journal wrote, in 1901, of Pompeii’s well-preserved insults. “Another exclaims: ‘Epaphra glaber es,’ (Oh, Epaphras, thou art bald;) Rusticus est Cordyon, (Corydon is a clown or country bumpkin;) Epaphra, Pilicrepus non es, (Oh, Epaphras, thou art no tennis-player.)”
“The fact that we can read the original inscriptions at all today is part-tragedy, part-miracle. Like most of what scholars know of Pompeii, the city’s extensive graffiti is so well preserved because it spent nearly 1,500 years entombed in ash after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. People have been fixated on the ancient etchings since Pompeii was rediscovered centuries ago. “Though nearly 20 centuries old, the thoughtless school-boy’s scrawls, the love-sick gallant’s doggerel, or the caricature of some friend, foe, or popular favorite, are still as clear as though executed by an idler yesterday,” The New York Times wrote in 1881. [Source: Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Mar 29, 2016 |^|]
Digitalization of Pompeii Graffiti
Adrienne LaFrance wrote in The Atlantic: “But despite all this appreciation, Pompeii’s graffiti hasn’t been easy for most people to access. Even in the Internet age, a time when there’s a vague expectation that all of human knowledge has somehow coalesced online (it hasn’t), the inscriptions haven’t been comprehensively digitized. Scholars have to either piece together disparate texts found only in research libraries, or visit Pompeii in-person. But much of the graffiti—indeed, much of Pompeii’s history—has been looted, defaced, or destroyed over time. Ironically, some of that vandalism has come at the hands of people who’ve etched their own graffiti over the originals. “Overall, people want to write on things to be known. To be everywhere at once yet nowhere at all.” [Source: Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, Mar 29, 2016 |^|]
“All this is why Benefiel is leading an effort to map the graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum, a nearby town that was also buried by the 79 A.D. eruption. With a grant from a National Endowment for the Humanities, she and other scholars are building a suite of tools to digitally catalogue, contextualize, and analyze these ancient inscriptions. |^|
““I’m really interested in trying to look at the whole of what we have from these cities, and thinking a bit more broadly about how we can identify who’s writing messages and where they’re writing them,” Benefiel said. “Right now, that’s really hard to do just because of how they’ve been published, and how the map has completely changed because excavations got much more expansive.” |^|
“Digitizing what’s known about the graffiti at Pompeii—and making a searchable database that’s rich with metadata like height, writing style, language, and other details—is also a way of teasing out connections between inscriptions that aren’t otherwise apparent. Perhaps, for example, scholars will be able to identify common authorship among a variety of geographically disperse messages. Or maybe they’ll be able to understand what kinds of establishments are adorned with certain graffiti, based on the nature of the messages written there. |^|
Studying Pompeii’s Garbage
Researchers at Pompeii have done a systematic survey of street trash, buckets and even storage containers to gain an understanding of the relationship between Romans and their possessions. “We’re actually starting to see evidence of people’s choices and how they dealt with their objects,” Caroline Cheung, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, involved in the project, told USA Today. “We get a sense of how people were using them, how they were storing them, whether they were throwing them away or keeping them.” [Source: Traci Watson, USA Today, January 20, 2017]
Traci Watson of USA Today wrote: “The humble objects left behind show that people didn’t necessarily go easy on their possessions, even though the articles of everyday life were often purchased rather than homemade. “Take the objects discovered at a farmhouse near Pompeii, where the cooking range was so heaped with ashes that it’s clear “they just basically didn’t take out the garbage,” says Theodore Peña of the University of California, Berkeley. “Like frat boys.” Peña leads the project, which is taking a close look at artifacts found during previous excavations.
“In a storeroom of the kitchen, shelves held gear that “had the hell beaten out of it,” Peña says. There was a bronze bucket full of dents, perhaps where it had banged into the side of the well just outside the farmhouse. There were pots with bits of the rims broken off and a casserole so badly cracked that it was close to falling apart, but people had kept them to use again.
“At a complex near Pompeii that seems to have been a wine-bottling facility, there were more than 1,000 amphorae, ceramic vessels that were the shipping containers of their day. Many were patched and waiting to be refilled, presumably with wine, Peña says.
“When the researchers delved into street rubbish, they expected to find lots of broken glass, used for perfume bottles and other common items. Instead they found almost none, a sign that even shards of glass were being collected and made into something else. “It’s too early to say whether the people of Pompeii were thrifty adherents of recycling. But the indications so far are that “ceramics and other types of objects were being reused, repurposed or at least repaired,” Cheung says, in contrast to today’s “throwaway society. … If I break a cheap mug, I probably throw it away. I don’t even think about repairing it.”
Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii
James W. Jackson wrote in the Villa of Mysteries website: “This villa, built around a central peristyle court and surrounded by terraces, is much like other large villas of Pompeii. However, it contains one very unusual feature; a room decorated with beautiful and strange scenes. This room, known to us as "The Initiation Chamber," measures 15 by 25 feet and is located in the front right portion of the villa. [Source: James W. Jackson, Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii website]
“The term "mysteries" refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world. The Greek word for "rite" means "to grow up". Initiation rites, then, were originally ceremonies to help individuals achieve adulthood. The rites are not celebrations for having passed certain milestones, such as our high school graduation, but promote psychological advancement through the stages of life. Often a drama was enacted in which the initiates performed a role. The drama may include a simulated death and rebirth; i.e., the dying of the old self and the birth of the new self. Occasionally the initiate was guided through the ritual by a priest or priestess and at the end of the ceremony the initiate was welcomed into the group.
“The chamber is entered through an opening located between the first and last scenes of the fresco The fresco images seem to part of a ritual ceremony aimed at preparing privileged, protected girls for the psychological transition to life as married women. The frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries provide us the opportunity to glimpse something important about the rites of passage for the women of Pompeii. But as there are few written records about mystery religions and initiation rites, any iconographic interpretation is bound to be flawed. In the end we are left with the wonderful frescoes and the mystery. Nevertheless, an interpretation is offered, see if you agree or disagree.
“At the center of the frescoes are the figures of Dionysus, the one certain identification agreed upon by scholars, and his mother Semele (other interpretations have the figure as Ariadne). As he had been for Greek women, Dionysus was the most popular god for Roman women. He was the source of both their sensual and their spiritual hopes.
Scenes in Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii
James W. Jackson wrote in the Villa of Mysteries website: “Scene 1: The action of the rite begins with the initiate or bride crossing the threshold as the preparations for the rites to begin. Her wrist is cocked against her hip. Is she removing her scarf? Is she listening to the boy read from the scroll? Is she pregnant? The nudity of the boy may signify that he is divine. Is he reading rules of the rite? He wears actor's boots, perhaps indicating the dramatic aspect of the rites. The officiating priestess (behind the boy) holds another scroll in her left hand and a stylus in her right hand. Is she prepared to add the initiate's name to a list of successful initiates?” Later, “The initiate, now more lightly clad, carries an offering tray of sacramental cake. She wears a myrtle wreath. In her right hand she holds a laurel sprig. [Source: James W. Jackson, Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii website]
“Scene 2: A priestess, wearing a head covering and a wreath of myrtle removes a covering from a ceremonial basket held by a female attendant. Speculations about the contents of the basket include: more laurel, a snake, or flower petals. A second female attendant wearing a wreath, pours purifying water into a basin in which the priestess is about to dip a sprig of laurel. Mythological characters and music are introduced into the narrative. An aging Silenus plays a ten-string lyre resting on a column.
“Scene 3: A young male satyr plays pan pipes, while a nymph suckles a goat. The initiate is being made aware of her close connection with nature. This move from human to nature represents a shift away from the conscious human world to our preconscious animal state. In many rituals, this regression, assisted by music, is requisite to achieving a psychological state necessary for rebirth and regeneration. The startled initiate has a glimpse of what awaits her in the inner sanctuary where the katabasis will take place. This is her last chance to save herself by running away. Perhaps some initiates did just that. The next scene provides hints about what both frightens and awaits the initiate.
“Scene 4: “The Silenus looks disapprovingly at the startled initiate as he holds up an empty silver bowl. A young satyr gazes into the bowl, as if mesmerized. Another young satyr holds a theatrical mask (resembling the Silenus) aloft and looks off to his left. Some speculate that the mask rather than the satyr's face is reflected in the silver bowl. So, looking into the vessel is an act of divination: the young satyr sees himself in the future, a dead satyr. The young satyr and the young initiate are coming to terms with their own deaths. In this case the death of childhood and innocence. The bowl may have held Kykeon, the intoxicating drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries, intended for the frightened initiate.
“Scene 5: This scene is at the center of both the room and the ritual. Dionysus sprawls in the arms of his mother Semele. Dionysus wears a wreath of ivy, his thyrsus tied with a yellow ribbon lies across his body, and one sandal is off his foot. Even though the fresco is badly damaged, we can see that Semele sits on a throne with Dionysus leaning on her. Semele, the queen, the great mother is supreme.
“Scene 6: The initiate, carrying a staff and wearing a cap, returns from the night journey. What has happened is a mystery to us. But in similar rituals the confused, and sometimes drugged initiate emerges like an infant at birth, from a dark place to a lighted place. She reaches for a covered object sitting in a winnowing basket, the liknon. The covered object is taken by many to be a phallus, or a herm. To the right is a winged divinity, perhaps Aidos. Her raised hand is rejecting or warding off something. She is looking to the left and is prepared to strike with a whip. Standing behind the initiate are two figures of women, unfortunately badly damaged. One woman (far left) holds a plate with what appear to be pine needles above the initiate's head. The apprehensive second figure is drawing back.
“Scene 7: The two themes of this scene are torture and transfiguration, the evocative climax of the rite. Notice the complete abandonment to agony on the face of the initiate and the lash across her back. She is consoled by a woman identified as a nurse. To the right a nude women clashes celebratory cymbals and another woman is about to give to the initiate a thyrsus, symbolizing the successful completion of the rite.
“Scene 8: This scene represents an event after the completion of the ritual drama. The transformed initiate or bride prepares, with the help of an attendant, for marriage. A young Eros figure holds a mirror which reflects the image of the bride. Both the bride and her reflected image stare out inquiringly at us, the observers.
“Scene 9: The figure above has been identified as: the mother of the bride, the mistress of the villa, or the bride herself. Notice that she does wear a ring on her finger. If she is the same female who began the dramatic ritual as a headstrong girl, she has certainly matured psychologically. Scene 10: Eros, a son of Chronos or Saturn, god of Love, is the final figure in the narrative.”
Problems at Pompeii
Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “The volcanic eruption of A.D. 79 that buried Pompeii and other settlements on the Bay of Naples has given us a fascinating window onto the everyday life of a Roman town. This window is not always clear - some inhabitants of Pompeii managed to take some of their belongings with them as they fled the eruption, or returned to salvage what they could after it, possibly obscuring the record by doing so. The archaeological record has also been affected by clandestine excavations, and by the poor preservation of some materials, such as wood. Yet at Pompeii we still have still a wealth of evidence - architecture, wall-paintings and mosaics, domestic artefacts - of a kind that is rarely found at other archaeological sites. And this evidence provides a unique insight into the lives of ordinary Romans in the first century AD. [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]
Critics complain that too much money is being spent on glamorous high-profile digs at Pompeii and not enough is being spent to preserve structures that have already been unearthed and are in danger of collapsing. Some archaeologists argue that a ban on new digs should be imposed and money should go into preservation. It is estimated that $280 million is necessary to halt Pompeii's decay, about ten times it annual budget.
Vandals have knocked the heads off statues; stray dogs wander around; tourists take pieces of marble as souvenirs; water bottles are left at the feet of statues; and squatters have planted vegetable gardens in unexcavated areas. When archeologist excavated he House of Amarantus in the 1950s they unearthed neat stacks of amphorae. When the returned in 1994 all the vessels had ben smashed.
Frescoes have faded, walls have collapsed, 2,000-year-old floor tiles are exposed to the rain. Guides are known to accept bribes for letting tourists go into unauthorized areas. Guards have been accused of participating in lotting One guarded pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a tourist from Texas in 1996 and he didn't loss his job.
Crime is a problem. Organized crime groups have been awarded contracts for maintenance and restoration projects. Thieves frequently raid the sites. During the past 35 years more than 600 items form frescoes to bricks have been pilfered from Pompeii. One of the worst thefts occurred in 1977 when someone hacked 14 frescoes from a villa knows as the House of Gladiators. In January 2004, thieves cut frescoes from the House of Chaste Lovers. Visitors also complain that there is a shortage of toilets and many signs are only in Italian.
Decline of the Pompeii Archaeological Site
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On a sweltering summer afternoon, Antonio Irlando leads me down the Via dell’Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare in first-century Pompeii. The architect and conservation activist gingerly makes his way over huge, uneven paving stones that once bore the weight of horse-drawn chariots. We pass stone houses richly decorated with interior mosaics and frescoes, and a two-millennial-old snack bar, or Thermopolium, where workmen long ago stopped for lunchtime pick-me-ups of cheese and honey. Abruptly, we reach an orange-mesh barricade. “Vietato L’Ingresso,” the sign says—entry forbidden. It marks the end of the road for visitors to this storied corner of ancient Rome. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2015 ~|~]
“Just down the street lies what Turin’s newspaper La Stampa called Italy’s “shame”: the shattered remains of the Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani, a Roman gladiators’ headquarters with magnificent paintings depicting a series of Winged Victories—goddesses carrying weapons and shields. Five years ago, following several days of heavy rains, the 2,000-year-old structure collapsed into rubble, generating international headlines and embarrassing the government of then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The catastrophe renewed concern about one of the world’s greatest vestiges of antiquity. “I almost had a heart attack,” the site’s archaeological director, Grete Stefani, later confided to me.~|~
“Since then this entire section of Pompeii has been closed to the public, while a committee appointed by a local judge investigates the cause of the collapse. “It makes me angry to see this,” Irlando, a genial 59-year-old with a mop of graying hair, tells me, peering over the barrier for a better look. Irlando enters the nearby Basilica, ancient Pompeii’s law court and a center of commerce, its lower-level colonnade fairly intact. Irlando points out a stone lintel balanced on a pair of slender Corinthian columns: Black blotches stain the lintel’s underside. “It’s a sign that water has entered into it, and it’s created mold,” he tells me with disgust. A few hundred yards away, at the southern edge of the ruins, we peer past the cordoned-off entrance to another neglected villa, in Latin a domus. The walls sag, the frescoes are fading into a dull blur, and a jungle of chest-high grass and weeds chokes the garden. “This one looks like a war zone,” says Irlando.~|~
“Pompeii has suffered devastating losses since the Schola Armaturarum collapsed in 2010. Every year since then has witnessed additional damage. As recently as February, portions of a garden wall at the villa known as the Casa di Severus gave way after heavy rains. Many other dwellings are disasters in the making, propped up by wooden struts or steel supports. Closed-off roads have been colonized by moss and grass, shrubs sprout from cracks in marble pedestals, stray dogs snarl at passing visitors.”~|~
Pompeii Scolded by UNESCO for Shoddy Restoration and Corruption
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “A 2011 Unesco report about the problems cited everything from “inappropriate restoration methods and a general lack of qualified staff” to an inefficient drainage system that “gradually degrades both the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor.” Pompeii has also been plagued by mismanagement and corruption. The grounds are littered with ungainly construction projects that squandered millions of euros but were never completed or used.In 2012, Irlando discovered that an emergency fund set up by the Italian government in 2008 to shore up ancient buildings was instead spent on inflated construction contracts, lights, dressing rooms, a sound system and a stage at Pompeii’s ancient theater. Rather than creating a state-of-the-art concert venue, as officials claimed, the work actually harmed the historic integrity of the site. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2015 ~|~]
“Irlando’s investigation led to government charges of “abuse of office” against Marcello Fiori, a special commissioner given carte-blanche power by Berlusconi to administer the funds. Fiori is accused of having misspent €8 million ($9 million) on the amphitheater project. In March, Italian authorities seized nearly €6 million ($7 million) in assets from Fiori. He has denied the accusations.~|~
“Caccavo, the Salerno-based construction firm that obtained the emergency-fund contracts, allegedly overcharged the state on everything from gasoline to fire-prevention materials. Its director was placed under house arrest. Pompeii’s director of restoration, Luigi D’Amora, was arrested. Eight individuals are facing prosecution for charges including misallocation of public funding in connection with the scandal.“This was a truffa, a scam,” says Irlando, pointing out a trailer behind the stage where the police have stored theatrical equipment as evidence of corruption. “It was all completely useless.”~|~
“Administrative malpractice is not unheard of in Italy, of course. But because of the historic importance and popular appeal of Pompeii, the negligence and decay in evidence there are beyond the pale. “In Italy, we have the greatest collection of treasures in the world, but we don’t know how to manage them,” says Claudio D’Alessio, the former mayor of the modern city of Pompei, founded in 1891 and located a few miles from the ruins. A recent editorial in Milan’s Corriere della Sera declared that Pompeii’s disastrous state was “the symbol of all the sloppiness and inefficiencies of a country that has lost its good sense and has not managed to recover it.”~|~
“For its part, Unesco issued an ultimatum in June 2013: If preservation and restoration efforts “fail to deliver substantial progress in the next two years,” the organization declared, Pompeii could be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, a designation recently applied to besieged ancient treasures such as Aleppo and the Old City of Damascus in Syria.~|~
Great Pompeii Project
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The Circumvesuviana Line” is “the train that carries thousands of visitors to the site every day, past graffiti-covered stations and scruffy exurbs, the staff is eager to present an impression of new dynamism. In 2012 the European Union gave the go-ahead for its own version of a Herculaneum-style initiative: the Great Pompeii Project, a €105 million ($117.8 million) fund intended to rescue the site. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2015 ~|~]
“Mattia Buondonno, Pompeii’s chief guide, a 40-year veteran who has escorted notables including Bill Clinton, Meryl Streep, Roman Polanski and Robert Harris (who was researching his best-selling thriller Pompeii), pushes through a tourist horde at the main entrance gate and leads me across the Forum, the marvelously preserved administrative and commercial center of the city.~|~
“I wander through one of the most glorious of Pompeii’s villas, the House of the Golden Cupids, a wealthy man’s residence, its interior embellished with frescoes and mosaics, built around a garden faithfully reproduced on the basis of period paintings. Fully restored with funding from the Italian government and the EU, the house was to open the week after my visit, after being closed for several years. “We needed money from the EU, and we needed architects and engineers. We could not realize this by ourselves,” says Grete Stefani, Pompeii’s archaeological director.~|~
“I also paid a visit to the Villa dei Misteri, which was undergoing an ambitious renovation. After decades of ill-conceived cleaning attempts—agents that were used included waxes and gasoline—the villa’s murals, depicting scenes from Roman mythology and everyday life in Pompeii, had darkened and become indecipherable. Project director Stefano Vanacore surveyed the work-in-progress. In an 8-by-8-foot chamber covered with frescoes, two contractors wearing hard hats were dabbing the paintings with outsize cotton swabs, dissolving wax. “This stuff has been building up for more than 50 years,” one of the workers told me.~|~
“In a large salon next door, others were using laser tools to melt away wax and gasoline buildup. Golden sparks shot off the bearded face of the Roman god Bacchus as the grime dissolved; beside him, a newly revealed Pan played his flute, and gods and goddesses caroused and banqueted. “It’s beginning to look the way it did before the eruption,” Vanacore said.~|~
“A wall panel across the room presented a study in contrasts: The untouched half was shrouded in dust, with bleached-out red pigments and smudged faces; the other half dazzled with figures swathed in fabrics of gold, green and orange, their faces exquisitely detailed, against a backdrop of white columns. I asked Vanacore how the frescoes had been allowed to deteriorate so markedly. “It’s a complicated question,” he said with an uneasy laugh, allowing that it came down to “missing the daily maintenance.”~|~
“The Villa dei Misteri, which reopened in March, may be the most impressive evidence to date of a turnaround at Pompeii. A recent Unesco report noted that renovation work was progressing on 9 of the 13 houses identified as being at risk in 2013. The achievements of the Great Pompeii Project, along with the site’s routine maintenance program, so impressed Unesco that the organization declared that “there is no longer any question of placing the property on the World Heritage in Danger list.”~|~
“Still, despite such triumphs, Pompeii’s recent history of graft, squandered funds and negligence has many observers questioning whether the EU-financed project can make a difference. Some Italian Parliamentarians and other critics contend that Pompeii’s ruins should be taken over in a public-private initiative, as at Herculaneum. Even the Unesco report sounded a cautious note, observing that “the excellent progress being made is the result of A.D. hoc arrangements and special funding. The underlying cause of decay and collapse...will remain after the end of the [Great Pompeii Project], as will the impacts of heavy visitation to the property.”
“To Antonio Irlando, the architect who is Pompeii’s self-appointed watchdog, the only solution to saving Pompeii will be constant vigilance, something that the site’s managers and the Italian government have never been known for. “Italy was once leading the world in heritage conservation,” he says. Squandering Unesco’s good will would be, he declares, “a national shame.”~|~
Newly-Restored Houses and a Restaurant Open at Pompeii
In the summer of 2014, ten newlyirestored houses, including the Hunting Lodge (Casa della Caccia) and the House of Apollo (Casa di Apollo), with its exquisite decorations and vivid reliefs of the Trojan War, were opened, some of which had never been open to the public before. [Source: ANSA, August 19, 2014]
The newly opened building also included the Thermopolium (Latin for restaurant) of Vetutius Placidus, where people could buy cooked food to go. It boasts shrines to Mercury and Dionysus (the gods of commerce and wine, respectively), a dining hall, and an adjoining mansion with a vestibule, a garden, and a dining room.
The Hunting Lodge had just undergone renovation when it was buried under meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. An extensive hunting scene is still visible on one of its garden walls, and its interiors are luxuriously decorated with beautiful paintings and marble-like coverings. Also noteworthy are the Domus Cornelia and its exquisite sculptures, the House of Apollo adorned with images of the god to which it owes its name, and the House of Achilles with its impressive reliefs of the Trojan war.
The thermopolium used to open directly on to a main street, the Via dell’Abbondanza. At its reopening visitors could buy sweet, calorie-filled desserts such as mostaccioli and globe — filled with sticky honey and ricotta cheese — which were sold in Roman times.
Pompeii Wine Brought Back to Life
In 2016, The Local reported: “Made from ancient grape varieties grown in Pompeii, ‘Villa dei Misteri’ has to be one of the world’s most exclusive wines. The grapes are planted in exactly the same position, grown using identical techniques and grow from the same soil the city’s wine-makers exploited until Vesuvius buried the city and its inhabitants in A.D. 79. [Source: the local.it, February 2016 <=>]
“In the late 1800s, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli first excavated some of the city’s vineyards from beneath three metres of solid ash. The digs turned up an almost perfect snapshot of ancient wine-growing – and thirteen petrified corpses, huddled against a wall. Casts were made of the bodies, as well as the vines and the surviving segments of trellises on which they were growing. But archaeologists didn’t think to restore the vineyards of ancient Pompeii until the late 1980s. <=>
“When they did, they realized they didn’t have a clue about wine-making, so they called in local winemaker Piero Mastrobeardino. Together they set out to discover how the ancient Romans made wine, and which grapes and farming methods they used. “The team looked at casts of vine roots made two centuries ago and consulted the surviving fragments of ancient farming texts,” Mastrobeardino told The Local. “We even looked at ancient frescoes to try to identify which grapes grew from Pompeii’s soil.” The team discovered that the type of grapes their ancestors were growing, called Piederosso Sciacinoso and Aglianico, were the same varieties still being grown on the slopes of Vesuvius by local farmers. Aglianico is a variety which Piero’s father is credited for saving from extinction after the Second World War. <=>
“Although the grape varieties were still the same, farming techniques had changed significantly since the time of the Romans. “We use a number of methods to grow the fruit and carry out all of the work manually. One thing all our farming techniques have in common is that the grapes are grown at an extremely high density,” Mastrobeardino explained. At first, experts doubted whether the grapes would grow at all at yields almost twice as high as those used today. However, once placed back in Pompeii’s fertile soil, they flourished. Enologists discovered that the Romans’ high-density growth technique is actually beneficial – the technique, now rediscovered, is spreading to the modern wine-making. <=>
“But not everything about ancient wine-making was better. Mastrobeardino ferments the wine according to modern techniques and says Roman wine tasted foul. Pompeii wines were fermented in open-topped terracotta pots, called dolia. These were lined with pine resin filled with wine and buried deep into the earth. Asking a modern wine-lover to drink ancient wine would be foolish. The Romans knew their system was far from perfect but didn’t have the technology to change it.” <=>
“Pompeii wines were considered among the best in the Empire, but were fiercely alcoholic and often diluted with honey, spices and even seawater to mask their rancid flavour. Some 1,500 bottles of Villa dei Misteri are made each year and can be found on the tables of exclusive restaurants in Tokyo, London and New York, Mastrobeardino said. “It’s more of a research project than a commercial enterprise, but it has come a long way. We have now replanted 15 of the city’s ancient vineyards and are experimenting with diverse ancient farming techniques and grape blends.” It might not be a profitable enterprise, but it doesn’t come cheap either – a bottle will set you back around €77.” <=>
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018