What Happened at Pompeii?

A place which has become known worldwide for its tragedy and perseverance. Learn what really happened at Pompeii and why it is so famous.

What is Pompeii?

Pompeii is an ancient town that sits at the base of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in the Bay of Naples. This natural landmark is thousands and thousands of years old and has erupted more than fifty times in its lengthy existence, but no eruption was more tragic or famous than the one in 79 AD, when the city of Pompeii was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. On the morning of the eruption, thick pyroclastic clouds rolled down the volcano and out towards the Bay of Naples, bringing Pompeii and its surrounding towns to the ground. The people closest to the volcano had almost no hope of surviving, but more people than you’d think managed to survive the eruption by fleeing to the nearby ships close to Naples. We know this from the only witness account we have of the eruption, from Pliny the Younger who witnessed the eruption from a distance whilst staying with his aunt and uncle. He described the thick ash cloud that appeared in the sky communicating the danger and tragedy that was unfolding. This is the only account historians have had to go off in the whole 2,000 years since the eruption. That and other educated assumptions about volcanoes and ancient life are all we’ve had to inform our modern-day view. Following the town’s destruction and the death of more than 2000 people, the city was eventually left and forgotten for centuries afterwards.

When was it discovered?

It wasn’t until 1748 when a group of explorers stumbled across the site and were shocked to find that the city remained preserved underneath the layer of ash it had been covered by. The outlines of people remained intact, and the buildings remained as they were on the day of the eruption, giving archaeologists deep insights into the daily life of those who lived during ancient Roman times. With excavations ongoing, the site has been extensively researched and analysed, from skeleton bones, human waste and carbonised food all adding to our knowledge of the ancient world. For example, the 81 carbonised loaves found across the city’s 30 bakeries, shows how rich and poor ate the same kind of bread. Made with the same ingredients and cooked in the same way. This was a cheap and easy staple to their diet which has also informed the view that all who lived in Pompeii ate fairly well, with slaves being the exception. The most interesting and haunting of the Pompeii remains however are the body casts of those who were unable to escape. Frozen in their final moments, the casts have been filled in with plaster so that these bodily outlines can still be seen today. They are so exact that you can even see the facial expressions of those unfortunate souls. Today, visitors can wander the well-preserved streets of Pompeii, discovering centuries-old bakeries, villas, and brothels, and gathering an understanding of how the people of Pompeii lived in a time we can no longer remember.

Why is the site so popular? 

For many visitors, it is the fascinating and tragic history of Pompeii that draws them in. The site grew in eminence and popularity during the Renaissance period when it became part of the Grand Tour – a traditional trip of Europe that was made by society’s elite during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nowadays, a tour of the city leaves little to the imagination – visitors can still see the casts of human bodies and almost hear the clatter of horse’s hooves in the narrow, cobbled lanes. And, against the towering Roman pillars, crumbling buildings, and vast piazzas of Pompeii, the towering shadow of Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance, threatening another eruption any decade now. Unlike the unexpected and ill-prepared people of Pompeii however, who were oblivious to the fact that they lived at the base of a volcano, Mount Vesuvius is watched around the clock by experts ready to alert people in advance to any eruption. Being so large and domineering in its power, the volcano has also become an attraction for tourists, as well as the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Under the guidance of an experienced guide, people can hike up the volcano, stand by a crater and see the views out to sea and the surrounding towns. But what was Pompeii like before its destruction? Some might be surprised to know that ever since the ancient Greeks came to the region in the 8th century BC, the Bay of Naples and the towns it encompassed were a hotbed of hedonism for wealthy holidaymakers.

What was it like before the 79 AD eruption? 

By the first century AD, Pompeii was the summer home for many of Rome’s most established citizens, and it was characterised by opulent houses and elaborate mansions. Elsewhere, there were artisan shops, charming cafes, and bathhouses, as well as a 20,000-seat arena and a smattering of open-air markets. Visitors can learn all about it on a tour of Pompeii that turns back the hands of time to a more tragic and devastating era. We highly recommend taking a guided tour of this fascinating site. Vast in size and detail, it would take a whole day, maybe more to tour the site completely. With a guide, you can make sure you don’t miss out on any of Pompeii’s top attractions, such as the Forum, House of the Vettii, the public baths or the brothel.

Related article: Where to travel to in Southern Italy?

Language »