Nowhere else on earth gives as vivid an insight as Pompeii into how ordinary people lived 2,000 years ago - or shows so graphically how they died
Pompeii was a place I always knew I had to visit one day. Ever since I first learned about the city destroyed by a volcano and then rediscovered centuries later, I felt consumed with curiosity. Like most people before they see it, I had many preconceptions and a kind of image in my head as to what I’d find. But (again, I suspect, like many peope) those expectations were exceeded many times over when I actually visited for real.
Pompeii is unique. An emotive, three-dimensional time capsule of life in a well-off, and important, Roman city. It was a thriving trading city, close to the bay of Naples, with many high-status houses and public buildings. But the 20,000 inhabitants had already suffered at the hands of Mother Nature just 16 years before the fateful volcano, when a powerful earthquake destroyed much of the city. Then, in 79AD, after days of throwing ash and smoke out into the air, Mount Vesuvius finally erupted. Many of the population had already left, but around 2,000 are thought to have remained. They perished as the poisonous fumes from the volcanic debris smothered Pompeii, and a deep layer of ash and pumice covered all but the tallest buildings.
Finding your way around isn’t too difficult once you have worked out the grid of the main thoroughfares. I generally pick up a map from the ticket office, though, as it's easy to miss some of the less obvious places of interest in the maze of smaller streets.
If you’re able to stay close by, the excellent Hotel Forum is within walking distance. I also suggest you set aside a whole day, as to try and see Pompeii in less can be frustrating. Yes, it’s possible to walk around the main sights in half a day, but for me the most rewarding aspect of a visit is to experience what it was like to have lived here 2,000 years ago. The best way to do that is to understand each place as you pass, and create a picture in your mind of how it was – almost like wandering through your own historical scenario.
Such is the wealth of detail still easy to see, this is not a difficult thing to do. Imagine the bustle of activity around the busy shops, selling things from the large pots that are still in place. In the once well-to-do area where many of the high-status homes were, the Casa del Fauno has a mosaic by the entrance that says ‘welcome’ and inside there is still a small statue of a faun. (Actually, it’s a copy, as the original, like many artefacts from Pompeii and the surrounding area, is in a Naples museum).
Of course, there are also many reminders of the tragedy that befell Pompeii. Next to the huge and largely intact amphitheatre I found an area that was apparently used as a kind of recreation ground – even with a swimming pool. I was told that when this area was first excavated, the archaeologists found the skeletons of many young men huddled in the corner. They must have been using the area at the exact moment the volcano erupted, and the subsequent devastation was so rapid that they had no time to escape.
One of my favourite places – especially at the end of the day - is the Forum, situated at one of the main intersections in the city. Quite apart from the array of important buildings that surround it, such as the temples, the main market and a basilica, it’s a perfect place to just pause and think. Stand in the main square, and look along the length of the grassy Foro. This was the heart of a busy, prosperous and powerful Roman city. But in the background, the dark and infinitely more powerful shape of Mount Vesuvius gazes menacingly down on its most famous victim. I stand for a moment, lost in time, wondering what I would have done had I been here when the mountain erupted. The answer is never pleasant.
There is so much to witness here, and in so many different ways. From a clinically historical point of view, I guess it must be the most complete Roman city still in existence. And that’s without the considerable amount of it that is yet to be excavated. It reveals so much about the way everyday citizens lived at that time, and how a city of this size functioned.
But without a doubt, unless your heart is as hard as the stone from the mountain itself, you’ll find this an emotional place to visit. No matter how many times I see them, the numerous haunting stone casts around the site, showing actual inhabitants in the positions they died, always leave a lasting impression.
Above all else, Pompeii is not just another historical site. It was a real city with real people, and somewhere I recommend everyone to visit at least once in their lifetime.
And if the experts are right, Vesuvius is overdue for another major eruption - so you shouldn’t leave it too long before making your trip!