The Anniversary of Pompeii's Destruction
Mount Vesuvius, a volcano near the Bay of Naples in Italy, is hundreds of thousands of years old and has erupted more than 50 times. It’s most famous eruption took place in August 24 or 25, 79 A.D., when the volcano buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under a thick carpet of volcanic ash. The irony thing is that it occur a few day after the Festival of Vulcan, the God of Fire and Volcano. The dust “poured across the land” like a flood, one witness wrote, and shrouded the city in darkness…like the black of closed and unlighted rooms.” Eleven hundred people died, and the city was abandoned for almost as many years. When a group of explorers rediscovered the site in 1748, they were surprised to find that--underneath a thick layer of dust and debris--Pompeii was mostly intact. The buildings, artifacts and skeletons left behind in the buried city have taught us a great deal about everyday life in the ancient world.
Pompeii’s patron deity was Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Small wonder that the city’s ruins were filled with erotic art, perfume bottles and extravagant gold jewelry, including earrings set with pearls, gold balls and uncut emeralds bunched like grapes. “I see they do not stop at attaching a single large pearl in each ear,” the Roman philosopher Seneca observed during the first century A.D. “Female folly had not crushed men enough unless two or three entire patrimonies hung from their ears.” The showiest pieces of jewelry in the exhibition are the catenae: gold chains up to six feet long that wrapped tightly around a woman’s waist then crossed her chest and shoulders bandoleer-style.
The exhibition includes a magnificent bronze helmet decorated with scenes of vanquished barbarians in high relief above the armored visor. (When losers were put to death, their bodies were carted off to a special room where they were relieved of their armor.) More than a dozen other such helmets have been unearthed in the gladiators’ barracks, along with assorted weaponry. Also discovered there were the remains of a woman wearing lots of expensive jewelry, inspiring speculation that she was a wealthy matron secretly visiting her gladiator lover at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption. More likely, considering the 18 other skeletons found in the same small room, she was simply seeking refuge from the deadly ash.
By encasing objects almost as tightly as an insect trapped in amber, the fine-grained volcanic ash that smothered Pompeii proved a remarkable preservative. Where the public market used to be, archaeologists have dug up glass jars with fruit still in them. An oven in an excavated bakery was found to contain 81 carbonized loaves of bread. A surprising amount of graffiti was also preserved. Blank, mostly windowless Pompeians houses, for instance, presented seemingly irresistible canvases for passersby to share their thoughts. Half-dozen walls around town offer comments on the relative merits of blondes and brunettes.
Several inscriptions salute local gladiators. The city’s 22,000-seat amphitheater was one of the first built specifically for blood sport. Gladiators came mostly from the region’s underclass—many were slaves, criminals or political prisoners—but charismatic victors could rise to celebrity status. Celadus the Thracian was “the ladies’ choice,” according to one inscription.
Some people may believe that Pompeii was overtaken by flowing lava, like the lava you see in the currently active Hawaiian volcanoes. That did not happen. Pompeii was buried in a heavy rain of volcanic ash, and the people who died there were overcome in moments by an extremely hot pyroclastic flow, not by lava per se.
Another myth is that was disproved over time was that no body from Pompeii escaped, that everyone was either buried or they died when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The truth is that there were over 12,000 people and most Pompeians were able to escape before the final devastating eruption. There were only 1,100 bodies that had been uncovered which indicates that a portion of the residents were too slow or were unwilling to abandon the town during the first phase of the eruption.