Pompeii & Herculaneum – Lost Cities of the Roman Empire (2005,2009)

Pompeii & Herculaneum – Lost Cities of the Roman Empire (2005,2009)

August 23, 79 AD. The day dawned bright and sunny as usual and seemed full of promise. Pompeiians went about their daily business of administering, conferring, trading, praying etc, blissfully unaware of what destiny had in store for them. So, they were totally unprepared when later in the evening, their world erupted in a pyroclastic flow – of molten lava, pumice, ash, hot stones and debris, suffocating, singeing, charring and melting everything that lay in its path as a river of fire gushed out in primordial fury down the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii and its 20,000 inhabitants were literally buried alive in an instant.

“Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames . . . Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. “

Pliny, the younger

This is short excerpt from a live account of the events of that fateful day, recorded for posterity by Pliny the Younger, a Roman historian. At the time of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the Roman fleet under the command of Pliny the Elder was stationed across the Bay of Naples. A foolhardy Pliny the Elder  launched ships and sailed toward the erupting volcano for a closer look only to be suffocated to death. Pliny’s nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, was with him on that day, but had stayed back at Misenum. He had witnessed the eruption and had also received first-hand reports from those who had been with his uncle at his death. Based on this information Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus  recounting the horrifying destruction wrought by the exploding volcano.  These accounts have survived and provide an eloquent eyewitness account of the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius and the fate that befell Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum. Today, we know that Pompeii and Herculaneum also survive, albeit in a ruined state, in the suburbs of modern-day Naples.

Naples reminds you of Mumbai –  ramshackle multi-storey apartments festooned with fluttering laundry, walls scrawled with grafitti, balconies cluttered with furniture, winding streets choking with traffic. It also has some of the friendliest and chattiest people you will find anywhere in Europe. In fact, Naples seems hardly European.


In Naples, all roads lead to Pompeii, or so you would have thought. But there’s nary a signpost telling you where to go, how to go.  Pompeii boasts more than 4000 visitors daily, and all them probably stumble their way to Pompeii – as I did.  After some peregrinations, I find myself on the ‘circumvesuviana’ train from Naples to Pompeii Scavi – Italian for excavation site

The train chugs southwards along the spectacular Bay of Naples, with a cobalt-blue Mediterranean shimmering to my right while a deceptively serene Vesuvius looms to my left. Its once lava-encrusted slopes are overgrown with vegetation. But for the tell-tale appearance of a sawn-off peak, you would hardly recognize it as a volcano. I alight at Scavi and follow the road to the ruins.

Until early 18th century, few knew of the existence of Pompeii. Those who had read Pliny the Younger’s graphic account of the havoc wreaked by Vesuvius had probably assumed that the city had vanished into the entrails of the quaking earth. Then in 1711, a landowner digging a well on his premises came across fragments of marble statues. Soon the Austrian aristocracy in Naples got wind of the treasures that lay underneath and began tunneling recklessly, destroying valuable works of art in the process.  In 1748, Charles of Bourbon, ordered systematic excavations on the site. Thus the world got its first tantalizing glimpse of a buried city that revealed so much about the life and times of a bygone era.

Double Whammy

Pompeii and adjacent Herculaneum and Stabia were independent states of Campania which were eventually conquered by Romans in 80 BC. While Stabia was sacked and destroyed by Silla, the Roman General, the other two came under Roman rule, as much of their architecture shows. Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered two successive earthquakes – the first one in 62 AD after which Pompeii was rebuilt extensively only to go under during the more devastating volcanic eruption in 79 AD.

My tour takes me to both these cities which are a few miles apart. Pompeii by far, is the more spectacular of the two. Pompeii’s ruins are accessed through the grand Porta Marina which gets its name from facing the sea and which was one of the eight gates of the walled city of Pompeii. Most of the wall is now gone. Before Vesuvius exploded, Pompeii used to be just 500 meters from the sea, but the rubble from the unforgiving volcano has pushed the sea to more than two kilometers away.

Forum, Pompeii’s Mall

As you enter, you stand on the threshold of the expansive Forum or the main square of Pompeii and the nerve centre of the religious, political and economic life of the ancient city.  The Forum is  massive – 142 meters long and 32 meters wide – paved in travertine and surrounded by arcades on three sides and the Temple of Jupiter on the fourth.  There are massive columns which must have supported the roof  – sporting Doric, Ionic and Roman features suggesting that they must have been built over different periods.  At the centre is the “suggestum” – the raised platform from which orators addressed the public, much like the soap-box Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.  Perhaps the orators gave fiery speeches, recited a poem or even sang a song they composed.

Along with Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were also worshipped at the Temple at the far end. To the left of the temple is the Arch of Tiberius, the Roman emperor who ruled from 14 to 37 AD and to the right, the Arch of Nero who ruled from 54 to 68 AD. Another temple in the Forum complex is the Temple of Apollo built in Roman style. The sanctum sanctorum, built on a pedestal, was accessible only to the high priest and worshippers would gather outside in a courtyard. The temple held statues of Apollo, his sister Diana and possibly, Mercury as well, but none of the originals remain.


Along the sides of the Forum are the public buildings and offices. The ruins even give away the rank and status of the various public functionaries. For instance, municipal offices are on raised platforms and were most certainly used by city magistrates for administration purposes. They were rebuilt after the 62 AD earthquake which also points to their importance. The Assembly building, referred to as the ‘Comitium’ was originally covered in marble and is believed to have been used for conducting elections.  Then there is the office of weights and measures called Mensa Poneraria, with the weights neatly fitted into their slots on a stone slab, still in tact. Before distributing their products, the merchants were compelled to compare their measurements here to ensure uniformity with the approved set of weights and measures.

As I stand at the Forum and survey the extraordinarily well-preserved ruins, I marvel at the paradox – the same lava, lapilli and ash that buried entire cities and annihilated a flourishing population has also preserved their ruins for posterity.  But for the ash, the buildings would not have withstood the ravages of time. The structures look as though the inhabitants had just walked out of their homes, shops and offices and would return anytime now.

For instance, trading at the Macellum or the covered market seems to have been abruptly terminated as disaster struck.  There is a neat row of shops on one side, a canopied fishmongers’ stall in the middle  – recognized by its circular shape and the water basin in the middle. If you stand there and close your eyes for a moment, you can almost hear the chopping and pounding sounds and voices haggling over a prize catch.

On the other side is the expansive Basilica, undoubtedly the most important building in Pompeii. It was the seat of the law courts and the chambers of commerce. The 28 brick columns that supported the roof exhibit Greek influence. In fact, the Basilica is believed to be pre-Roman, built around 120 B.C, because of the Oscan seal found in the tiles found near the gate. At the far-end of the Basilica is the rostrum from which judgments may have been delivered. There is even a separate entrance for the judges to enter and withdraw.  In fact, early Christian churches were built in the architectural style of the Basilica and thus came to be called Basilica themselves.

Temple of Vespasian

The Temple of Vespasian was dedicated to Vespasian, the emperor of Rome from 69 AD until his death in 79 AD. The white marble sculpture at the altar depicts a bull being led to sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered as an act of worship, their meat was eaten by the worshipers or sold in the marketplace. Whether a Christian could eat of this meat was a matter of debate in the church in the first century.

Vesuvius watching its own handiwork – the ruins

As I stroll along the cobbled streets rutted by chariot wheels and framed by gates such as the Gate of Caligula, I am befriended by Luciano Felici, one of the curators of the ruins at Pompeii. Soon I realize how valuable his friendship is: he carries a bunch of keys that would throw open many buildings that are otherwise not open to the hundreds of tourists that throng the place. What if I had to stretch and strain my linguistic skills to carry on a halting conversation with him in a language which was truly a hybrid of English, French and even Hindi, all the time hoping it sounded Italian.  But Felici remains unfazed by my linguistic assault and shows me around his empire with evident pride and immense enthusiasm. He even treats me to a cup of cappuccino afterwards.

Urban and Elegant

What strikes you most about Pompeii – and also Herculaneum for that matter – was that they were both very neatly laid-out cities, very urban, very elegant and very orderly. There was running water in the houses, as the numerous indoor fountains would testify. There were public baths – Roman style  – with separate entrances for men and women; while the walls of both were decorated with terracotta statues, the women’s baths were much more elegant with exquisite floral mosaics. There were separate dressing rooms called apodyterium, cold bath – frigidairium, warm bath – tepidarium and hot bath – calidarium.  The calidarium was heated by a system of double walls and hollow floor which provided circulation for hot air and steam. The large cold water basin has inscriptions which contain the names of the donors who funded its construction. There was also the palaestra or the gymnasium and separate areas for ablutions. There were  public latrines with running water channels.  In fact, the baths take up quite a bit of space in Pompeii and Herculaneum pointing to the fastidiousness of early Romans when it came to personal hygiene., In Herculaneu, there is even a bronze bath-tub that is still in tact.

Across the street from the Forum Baths is the tavern cum fast-food stall or thermopolium; it has marble slabs punctured with holes in which were fitted vats containing soups, drinks and snacks.

Pompeii’s Mayfair

While the public spaces in both Pompeii and Herculaneum are impressive enough, it is the private residences that are stunning in their grace and opulence. Pompeii has several aristocratic houses, the most notable being those of  Faun and Vetti. These palatial homes had a huge atrium surrounded by gardens. The atrium usually had a hole in the roof called the compluvium which allowed rainwater to collect in the fountain below or sunlight to streak through. The living quarters were painstakingly decorated with fountains and statues and the walls were almost always painted with murals – some of the original colours are still in tact.

Floors in the houses in both Pompeii and Herculaneum were almost always covered with elaborate and at times intricate mosaic patterns which are well preserved even to this day. In fact, one of the houses sports a mosaic dog at the entrance with the Latin inscription which warns the visitor “Beware of Dog”  It was not unusual for many aristocratic families to have four or five slaves who did all the menial work even as their masters led lives of leisure given over to the pleasures of life.

There is also a large open air theatre at the rear – very similar to the Roman amphitheatre – but actually built in Greek style to seat 5000. Alas, even Felici’s magic key bunch did not have the right keys for this one. So I have had to be content with seeing pictures of the theatre. I was told that during Nero’s time, it was used to train gladiators.


Giuseppe Fiorelli, in charge of excavations in 1860, found mysterious human shaped empty spaces amongst the ruins and decided to pour plaster into them. Voila, these turned out to be replicas of human beings caught unawares by the eruption and now immortalized by plaster. The technique caught astonishing detail of the clothing, footwear and even facial expressions at the time of death. Thus you have a man huddled in his shop with his knees drawn up to his chin, a woman fallen face down, clutching her baby, and many more in different positions, a sight that’s at once macabre and tragic. The plaster casts are a fascinating study of human reactions of persons who know their death is imminent. The site also contained numerous utensils and terracotta jars that presumably held olive oil and wines.

The Wrath of Vesuvius, Pompeii, Italy

Herculaneum, called Ercolano by Italians, is just at the foot of Vesuvius. Despite being the lesser known of the twin cities – and unjustly so – it has some impressive remnants of Roman architecture. The public spaces in Herculaneum are mostly destroyed, but for the series of pillars of an Assembly Hall, the Forum Baths and the taverns.  But the opulence of the private buildings reveals so much about their lifestyle.

The most remarkable of the many sites discovered in Herculaneum is the Villa of Papyri containing scrolls which turned out to be treasure houses of contemporary Roman knowledge. It contained unreadable charred rolls which seemed to have fused into a solid mass, but have since been eased open with special techniques to reveal 1800 separate sheets containing texts which took several years to decipher. It has now been confirmed that the scrolls contain Greek – not Latin as originally believed – philosophical texts. House of Papyri is still being excavated.

Frescos and floor mosaics

The Frescos and floor mosaics in Herculaneum are luminous even after two millenia. The mural figures include Neptune, Amphitrite, Poseidon and Hercules not to mention the ubiquitous cupids. In the House of Deer, there is a stunning marble statue of a deer being hunted by pack dogs. The floor mosaics come in mesmerising geometric patterns as well as sea creatures and animals. Herculaneum also has some well-preserved iron grills caked over with dried volcanic material. Even wooden beams supporting the roof and staircases are carbonized and in tact in some of the houses.

I leave Herculaneum to catch the bus that rides up Vesuvius. It takes you half way up and you have to trudge the rest of 1000 meters to the crater. But for the occasional ash flying into your eyes and hair, there is nary a sign that this was once an angry, rumbling volcano that breathed fire and brimstone and drowned two beautiful seaside towns in its pyroclastic flow. But don’t let the verdant foliage lull you into complacency. Scientists say Vesuvius is still alive . It has erupted more than 50 times since 79 AD.  The question to ask therefore, is not whether it will explode again, but when!

(Published in Frontline dated July 30, 2005)

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