How Pompeii Worked

By: Ed Grabianowski
A replica of a bronze statue of the god Apollo in a Pompeiian temple. The architecture and art that remains in Pompeii offers a peek into everyday life in the ancient city. Photography by Jeremy Villasis/Getty Images

Felix, a slave in Pompeii, is already tired, even though it's only midday. He's been hard at work in the midsummer heat, the clear blue sky offering no shelter from the blazing sun, save for the occasional breeze off the Mediterranean Sea. However, he has a rest period, so he and a few other slaves trudge back to the center of Pompeii along the Via dell'Abbondanza. The rich smell of baking bread fills the air, so he buys some, then purchases dried nuts and fish at a nearby thermopolium, where food comes ready to eat in clay jars. The handful of asses (ancient Roman coins) he uses to pay for his meal comes from the meager wage his master provides, but it's worth it on a day like today.

Because it's a day unlike any other, as he'll soon realize. It is Aug. 24, 79 C.E.


As he eats and talks with other slaves, the sky to the northwest fills with a sudden, terrible blaze, before a massive black cloud rises on a great pillar of ash and smoke above Mount Vesuvius. The earth rumbles beneath his feet, and some of the older people who've lived in Pompeii for nearly 20 years shake their heads. The mountain has been unquiet before.

But never like this. Before long he joins a growing crowd fleeing the city. Ash and shards of hot rock are falling from the sky. Looking back, he can see thick drifts of ash collecting on roofs and filling the streets. Pompeii is dying before his eyes.

This is the true story of the Roman city of Pompeii and the people who lived there. It's also the story of the city's sudden destruction, and the eventual rediscovery of ruins that offer an incomparable window into life in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.


Life in Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius has always loomed in the background of Pompeii's landscape. Ary6/E+/Getty Images

Archaeologists have found evidence of Bronze Age settlements in the area, although eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in 1800 B.C.E. and 1360 B.C.E. likely wiped out everyone from that time [sources: Greek culture. The temples, statues, public buildings and decorations in the villas all reflected a high degree of Hellenistic influence.

Pompeii was not the most important city in the Roman Empire, or even in the Campania region in southern Italy, but it was a particularly wealthy city. Before its destruction, Pompeii sat on the coast of the Bay of Naples near the mouth of the Sarno River, making it a trade hub for the region. The waters of the Sarno and the volcanic soils deposited by Mount Vesuvius combined to give the area rich farmland — volcanic soils are notably high in nutrients and the river provides a ready source of irrigation. And the limestone, called tufa, used to build the large public buildings and the villas and mansions of Pompeii's richest citizens was likely quarried from the Monti Lattari mountain range just south of the city. The wealthiest families in Pompeii made their fortunes primarily by making and exporting wine, although the region also produced olive oil and textiles [sources: Ling, Zanker].


The wealth in Pompeii allowed the arts to flourish and gave the city its distinctive array of marble and bronze statues and marble-fronted public buildings. Among Pompeii's more impressive buildings were temples to Jupiter, Venus, Augustus and others; an amphitheater that could hold 20,000 people (Pompeii's entire population at its peak); elaborate public baths; public parks and gymnasia; an entire theater district; and a sporting arena. A riot that broke out during an athletic competition between Pompeii and the rival city Nuceria in 59 C.E. was an early case of sports hooliganism [sources: Amery and Curran, Ling]. A wide range of housing types existed in Pompeii, from lavish estates to pergulae, small dwellings like apartments that were usually above shops or workshops.

The Eruption

Victims of the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius were buried in ash, leaving well-preserved, macabre scene of their last moments. Martin Godwin/Getty Images

The Campania region sits along a tectonic boundary where the African plate is slowly being pushed beneath the Eurasian plate, a process known as subduction. This "Campanian Arc" is home to several volcanoes, but none as active or as famous as Vesuvius (though Mount Etna, in Sicily and not part of the Arc, is Europe's most active volcano) [source: Taylor].

Veusvius is a stratovolcano, a type of volcano known for its steep sides built of alternating layers of hardened lava, ash, pumice and tephra. Stratovolcanoes are also known for their extremely violent eruptions: Mount St. Helens in Washington state and Krakatoa in Indonesia are other famous stratovolcanoes. Pressure within such volcanos builds as heated magma creeping toward the surface diffuses gas into the rocks. When the pressure grows strong enough, it bursts free from the volcano like popping the cork on a shaken champagne bottle. The 79 C.E. eruption of Vesuvius apparently exploded primarily out the top of the cone, but some stratovolcano eruptions explode out the side of the volcano, like Mount St. Helens and possibly some of the earlier Vesuvius eruptions.


The only recorded eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius comes from Pliny the Younger, whose uncle, Pliny the Elder, was in command of a fleet in the Roman navy stationed at Misenum, a town on the northwestern edge of the Bay of Naples. Pliny the Younger was around 17 years old at the time of the eruption — he wrote his letters to the Roman historian Tacitus more than 20 years later [source: Brilliant]. He and his mother were at Misenum when the eruption occurred, while his uncle was killed leading a rescue fleet. He wrote the following in his letters to Tacitus:

"For several days past there had been earth tremors which were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania: but that night the shocks were so violent that everything felt as if it were not only shaken but overturned."

In fact, a severe earthquake 17 years prior severely damaged Pompeii. The ruins of the city show cracked walls and lintels with signs of repair. Pliny the Younger's harrowing account of fleeing Misenum with a crowd of panicked people gives us a peek into what it was like for Pompeiians during the disaster:

"A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood ... We had scarcely sat down when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men ... There were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness forevermore ... Ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight ... At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud ... We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts."

The citizens of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum (a smaller town that was also buried by the eruption) evacuated in the hours after the eruption. However, not everyone was able or willing to leave. An estimated 2,000 people died in Pompeii [source: Kolich]. Modern archaeologists suspect that sudden pyroclastic flows called nuées ardentes, massive surges of heated gases and ash, killed the volcano's victims quickly. The heat was enough to kill them even when they were hiding in buildings, and the surges carried the ash indoors, burying everything. The eruption also destroyed the settlements of Oplontis and Stabiae.


The Rediscovery and Excavation of Pompeii

Some claim that the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries (seen here) depict a woman being initiated into the cult of Dionysus. Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Many writings from ancient Rome survive. Still, the ruins of Pompeii offer a direct look at life 2,000 years ago, especially for lower-class people and slaves. A lot of the written history of ancient Rome that survives focuses on politics, military matters and the activities of wealthy people. The perfectly preserved shops, homes and artwork of Pompeii give us an unparalleled glimpse into daily life in the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the eruption, some effort was made to recover belongings or salvage valuables from Pompeii. For instance, the temples and the public forum are missing the statues typical in other Roman cities, and there are tunnels through the ruins dating to the centuries after they were buried [source: artifacts didn't begin until the 1700s [source: Etienne]. Throughout the 1700s, both Pompeii and Herculaneum were plundered by a parade of kings, queens and other dignitaries who wanted ancient statues and mosaics for their palaces.


In the 1800s, archaeologists began more constructive work, excavating and clearing the hardened ash from buildings with the purpose of preserving what they could and learning as much about ancient Roman life as possible. Still, their methods were somewhat primitive. Damage to the site occurred as it was exposed to weather, and artifacts were moved to safer locations. Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the Pompeii excavations in 1860. This turned out to be a landmark event for the archaeological efforts at the ruins, as Fiorelli introduced careful methods of clearing and recording the positions of everything found in the ruins.

In 1863, Fiorelli tried something new with some of the remains he had found. After victims of the eruption died, they were covered in ash, which eventually hardened. Their clothing and flesh decomposed, leaving behind skeletons encased in hollow cavities. Fiorelli injected a plaster called gesso into the cavities, let it set overnight, then cleaned away the hard ash. The result was a detailed casting of the victims' bodies at the time of death, including their skin, clothes, facial expression and what they were wearing. The casts were so detailed that observers were even able to examine patterns some of the victims had shaved into their pubic hair. Sometimes the bones are even visible, depending on where they sat once the body had decayed.

Reproductions and photos of Fiorelli's casts became a sensation; people even put them on stereoscope cards in the 1800s. The shocking images of ancient people with expressions of agony were as captivating then as they are today. The attraction is complex — there are elements of macabre horror, fascination with the apocalyptic destruction of the city and the humanization of ordinary people from 2,000 years ago, ironically brought to life in their moment of death.

Gradually, more and more of the dead city was uncovered. Archaeologists referenced notable features when naming larger manors and estates. For example, the House of the Faun is named for a bronze statue it contained, while the evocatively named Villa of the Mysteries gets its name from a series of frescoes — paintings made using water-based pigments on freshly laid lime plaster — with a bright red background, in which a woman is inducted into the cult of Dionysus (though this interpretation is debated). Today, roughly two-thirds of the city has been cleared of ash [source: Amery and Curran].


Pompeii Today

A woman looks at a cluster of grapes, with the ruins of Pompeii in the background. The modern city of Pompei is home to the ancient ruins of Pompeii. Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

The ruins of Pompeii have suffered serious deterioration. A 1980 earthquake, bombing during World War II, damage from vandals and tourists, rainwater seeping into the buildings and inconsistent maintenance have all taken a heavy toll on the 2,000-year-old buildings. A moratorium on further excavations in the late 1990s focused all efforts at the sites on preserving rooms and buildings already uncovered. But the administration and care of the ruins have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Several major structures have collapsed completely, including the Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani, a training school and home for the city's gladiators, which fell in 2010.

In 2012, the European Union and Italian government invested 105 million Euros (more than $120 million) into The Great Pompeii Project, an effort to revitalize, repair and preserve the ruins by bringing in an army of archaeologists and preservation specialists [source: preservation efforts, particularly those in Herculaneum, have greatly improved access to the sites and restored many of the frescoes and mosaics to their original vivid colors. Unfortunately, heavy tourist traffic, vandalism and weather continue to be a problem. Drainage from the modern towns of Ercolano and Pompei seeps into the historic buildings, causing erosion and collapses [source: Stewart]. Nevertheless, a large portion of Pompeii (though not all of it) is open to visitors — entry costs between $10 and $20.


Pompeii and other related historic sites (Herculaneum, Oplontis and Boscoreale) are southeast of the city of Naples, Italy, whose metropolitan area is highly populated. While no eruption on the scale of the 79 C.E. one has happened since then, significant eruptions of Mount Vesuvius occurred in 1906 and 1944. Because it's been so long since the last eruption, there is concern about a looming major eruption so close to Italy's third largest city.

The influence of Pompeii and its tragic fate is echoed through 2,000 years of art and writing. In addition to the tens of thousands of photographs that exist of the frescoes, mosaics, statues and buildings, the destruction of the city has been a popular subject for artists of every era since the city's rediscovery. Stories, art exhibitions, songs and video games have featured Pompeii and its violent end.

Even second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ruminated on Pompeii's story — he seemed to be in an especially gloomy mood when he wrote, "How many whole cities have met their end: Helike, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others ... In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands" [source: Ling].


Lots More Information

Author's Note

I didn't really know much about Pompeii aside from repeatedly watching that Pink Floyd movie filmed in the ruined amphitheater when I was in college. I knew the general outline, of course. But I'd never really thought about what was going on with those preserved bodies, thinking they'd somehow been petrified by the ash rather than being plaster casts of their hollowed-out death scenes. It's a shame they've had so much trouble keeping the site intact, but things seem to be improving. Pompeii is now definitely on the short list of places I really want to visit someday.

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More Great Links

  • Parco Archeologico di Pompei

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