In the Campania region of Italy near the modern day city of Naples, there was once a prosperous Roman city – Pompeii. As a thriving center for trade, the inhabitants of the city were a mixture of the elite and slaves. No matter what their social class was, they all led fascinating and sometimes scandalous lives.
The residents of Pompeii left behind a number of detailed written accounts covering everything from trading and population to politics and day-to-day life. But as valuable as these documents may be, they are overshadowed by the uniquely preserved state of the city, which was overcome by the eruption of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, located 5 miles from the city.
Although many people first think of the plaster casts of human victims who died in the eruption when they think of Pompeii, the city has much more to offer. The fateful eruption which preserved the city in all its glory may have spelled disaster for most of its residents, but it has left an exceptional and complete record of life in a bustling Roman city at the height of the Roman Empire and is considered by many to be the richest archaeological site in the world.
The Earliest Settlement of Pompeii
While the remains people think of today are from the Roman era, Pompeii dates back as far as the 8th century BC. The region was settled by a group from central Italy called the Oscans, who saw the site as ideal thanks to its favorable climate and richly fertile volcanic soil.
While the crops of grapes and olives were bountiful thanks to the nutrient rich earth. The Oscans were unaware that this was due to the activity of the innocuous and beautiful mountain which formed the innocent back-drop to their idyllic settlement.
The population expanded as Greeks moved into the Campania region and for a while they were joined by Etruscans.
After the defeat of the Etruscans in 474 BC, they retreated from the area and were replaced by the Samnite people who lived in the local mountains but expanded further and moved into cities like Pompeii. Between 343 and 290 BC a series of fights between the Samnites marked the beginning of Roman influence on the city.
Roman Pompeii and the Siege by Sulla
With its rich resources and favorable location, Pompeii quickly became a favorite city of Rome. The city grew and positively thrived thanks to the empire investing in large building projects in the city in the 2nd century BC.
But the Samnite and Oscan origins of the city meant it had always been set apart from other cities, and it considered itself somewhat independent from Roman rule. In 89 BC it was besieged by a Roman general named Sulla, who aimed to increase the grip the empire had on Pompeii. The siege was a success for Sulla and those who showed any resistance to Roman rule were outcast from the city while the remaining residents fought for and were subsequently granted Roman citizenship.
Pompeii was now officially a Roman colony , and it was given the Latin name Colonia Coernelia Veneria Pompeianorum after the prestigious Cornelia house and the goddess Venus . Just like the city itself, many of the more aristocratic residents adopted Latinized versions of their names as a mark of their assimilation into Roman society.
Pompeii became an important part of the Roman trade route with many goods, arriving via sea routes, passing through the city on their way to Rome. Although Sulla’s veterans initially took control of the political scene in Pompeii, they evidently earned the respect of Rome as a number of names of Oscan origin began to reappear in positions of local government a couple of decades after the siege.
After the siege, Pompeii entered a second era of prosperity and a new amphitheater with a capacity of 5000 was constructed along with an odeon large enough for 1500. As was the case with most Roman cities, Pompeii was surrounded by a wall, which was intended to make it easier to defend in the event of a siege.
A series of gates served to separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic such as carts transporting produce. Within the walls, the city was laid out in traditional Roman fashion in methodical rows on a grid system, with the exception of the southwest corner which is uncharacteristically chaotic in its layout. There is evidence some of the streets operated as a one-way system.
The Inhabitants and Visitors to Roman Pompeii
In the years prior to its destruction, Pompeii was a thriving city with a large population. As many as 12,000 people lived in the city itself with up to a third of those being slaves. Around twice as many people lived in the villas and farmland surrounding the city.
Although Pompeii is inland today, at the time of the eruption it was a coastal city and it was very popular with the well-off. This meant there were a number of sizable villas with impressive sea views. The emperor Nero had a villa which was either near or in Pompeii and his wife Poppaea Sabina was a native of the city.
The coast of Naples (Pompeii) with Mount Vesuvius at sunset. ( JFL Photography / Adobe Stock)
Two of the most famous visitors to Pompeii were Gaius Plinicus Secunus and Gaius Caecilius – better known as Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. They were both notable figures in ancient Rome. Pliny the Elder was a natural philosopher, author, military commander, and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian. His nephew, Pliny the Younger was an author, lawyer, and magistrate.
Pliny the Elder lost his life while attempting to rescue people and his family from the eruption. Wind carrying toxic gas meant his ship could not leave port and he is believed to have been overcome by the fumes or suffered a heart attack in the resulting confusion and panic.
There are 247 remaining letters penned by Pliny the Younger, which are of great value to historians. Many of his letters are written to important political figures and some are even addressed to reigning emperors. He also provided evidence of the seismic activity in the lead up to the eruption, stating that Romans were accustomed to earthquakes and tremors in the region, and did not consider them concerning or alarming because they were so frequent.
He also wrote two letters about the eruption , 25 years after the fact, which were sent to Tacitus in response to a request for information about the death of Pliny the Elder. His meticulous description of events is so detailed that the type of eruption that destroyed Pompeii is still known as a ‘Plinian eruption’.
On Left – Plinian eruption: 1: ash plume, 2: magma conduit, 3: volcanic ash fall, 4: layers of lava and ash, 5: stratum, 6: magma chamber. On Right – Pompeii and other cities affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The black cloud represents the general distribution of ash and cinder. Modern coast lines are shown. (Left, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Right, CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Life in the City of Pompeii
Pompeii was an important part of the Roman trade network. A wide variety of goods passed through the city. Olives and olive byproducts, wine, wool, a type of fish sauce called garum, salt, walnuts, figs, almonds, cherries, apricots, onions, cabbages, and wheat were all exported. They imported luxury goods such as exotic fruit, spices, silk, sandalwood, wild animals to fight in the arena, and slaves.
The residents of Pompeii had a varied diet . Along with the items they traded, they ate beef, pork, birds, fish, oysters, crustaceans, snails, lemons, figs, honey, lettuce, artichokes, beans, and peas. Wealthier citizens would have had access to more of these, as well as delicacies like honey-roasted mice. Access to such a huge variety of foods is one reason the area was so desirable and attracted so many wealthy members of Roman society.
There were thousands of buildings in Pompeii, which represent a cross section of Roman society. There were large villas which were almost grotesque in their finery, and housing for the poorer members of society. Shops and market halls reveal the ways in which people purchased goods. Taverns, theaters, and brothels show the variety of ways people spent their free time.
Temples and hundreds of shrines to deities and ancestors build up a picture of the religious lives of the residents. There were schools, public latrines, a bath house, a flower nursery, an exercise ground, a basilica, and water towers. All the buildings which made up a typical Roman city – and more. Everything points to a city experiencing a golden age, with a huge number of amenities available to the people who lived and visited it.
Illustrated reconstruction of how the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii may have looked before Mount Vesuvius erupted. (DuendeThumb / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Many of the extravagant villas at Pompeii were built in a style revealing the earlier Greek influence on the region, and a lot of the houses had a private garden which often had an area dedicated to the production of wine.
But with a third of the residents of Pompeii being kept as slaves, there were far less glamorous living conditions preserved, and the slaves’ quarters reveal people lived in prison-like conditions in incredibly cramped rooms. Lower class prostitutes served their clients from buildings which were little more than a curtained off cubicle.
The Mountain and the Destruction of Pompeii
Vesuvius is the only volcano to have erupted on the European mainland in the past hundred years, and it is widely considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the world as there are currently three million people living in close proximity to it. Its eruptions have tended to be violent and explosive, adding to the danger and risk of living in its shadow.
There were at least eleven major eruptions prior to the settlement of Pompeii, but the volcano would lay dormant – sometimes for centuries – between them, and the Oscans were not aware of the power of the volcano when they settled Pompeii. Nevertheless, there were references to its previous eruptions in Greek mythology. The demi-god Hercules was said to have fought fierce battles against mighty giants in the fiery landscape around Vesuvius, and the city of Herculaneum which was eventually destroyed in the same eruption as Pompeii was named after him, in homage to the legends.
The eruption which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum was in 79 AD. On the morning of August 24th, one thousand years of magma was released from the volcano with a thunderous explosion. Residents would have seen an impressive display of fire and smoke but were not immediately alarmed.
Artist’s impression of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii. (Dcoetzee / Public Domain )
It was only after a second and far larger explosion several hours later that the dire nature of the situation became apparent. Scientists have calculated the power of the explosion as 100,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb which obliterated Hiroshima. As the residents of Pompeii began to flee for shelter, ash began to float down on them, settling over everything and quickly building up by several centimeters.
As the day went on, the ash continued to fall. The city was entombed in meters of the debris and the roofs of buildings began to collapse under its weight. Those who had not been able to escape sought shelter anywhere they thought they may be protected – near walls or huddled together with loved ones under stairs.
Those who were not able to escape sought shelter anywhere they could. (marneejill / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The final fate of Pompeii and the people who had been unable to escape was sealed at around 11 PM when the ash cloud collapsed, and the city was hit by a pyroclastic wave. The streets were filled with a toxic gas which would have asphyxiated anyone unlucky enough to still be alive, and a heat so intense the bodies were subsequently baked.
As the last of the ash fell, the city was entirely covered. Meters of debris covered a city which had once been an integral part of the Roman Empire and a desirable location for the rich and influential members of the Roman elite. In a matter of hours, Pompeii was buried, and it was largely forgotten until in 1755 AD local legends of a preserved ancient city were proven to be correct during the construction of a new canal.
When the city was excavated in the 19th century, the residents were revealed after 1700 years of being entombed in the city . Astoundingly, archaeologists realized the skeletal remains were surrounded by pockets of air. As the bodies had decayed, the outlines of their final resting positions had remained imprinted in the compacted ash encasing them.
The victims of the volcanic eruption in Pompeii remained encased in the compacted ash. (themadpenguin / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
When plaster of Paris was poured carefully into the voids, the bodies were brought back in staggering detail. As well as their final poses, the clothing and faces of Pompeii’s residents were preserved. It revealed people clinging to loved ones, curled up covering their mouths to try and escape the noxious fumes, or holding precious objects close so they would not be lost or stolen.
Despite the stark differences in fortune observed in the remains of the city, the people who died there have revealed themselves on another level – the casts of the rich and the poor are no different. The people of Pompeii all died in the same tragic manner, no matter what part of the city they called home.