Pompeii and Ercolano: walking along history


Have you seen the 2014 movie Pompeii? Well, forget it, as the real Pompei (with one I, as the second one hasn’t been used in Italy since the Roman empire times) is a pretty different place from how it is usually depicted in movies.
Pompei was founded roughly at the same time of Rome as a merchant village on the crossing of three important roads from the north, the southwest and southeast of the boot-shaped peninsula. Due to its important business role in the region it had a very turbulent history of passing from one kingdom to another, until it was inevitably annected to Rome around 80 b.C. – this is when it grew both in size and fame, becoming among other things a sort of preferred seaside holiday getaway for rich Romans.

There are not many historical information about the city. We know that in the year 59 the people of Pompeii fought with their Nuceran neighbors over a gladiatorial game, forcing the emperor to ban every circus entertainment in the area for ten years. The un-entertained Pompeians were then struck by a strong earthquake in 62, but the reason for which they sadly entered history forever is the 79 eruption of the nearby Vesuvius volcano. Differently from popular depictions, the eruption wasn’t a complete surprise. The area had been shaken by a series of other earthquakes in the weeks before, so much that most of the population had already evacuated. What is true is that the eruption was sudden and swift when it came, burying the whole city under a thick bed of burning thin ashes that penetrated everywhere, killing the remaining Pompeians in their place.

The reason for which we know this is a macabre yet fascinating one. When archeological excavations in the solidified ash began in 1748, the worker were puzzled by irregularly-shaped holes in the otherwise compact mass. Their origin became apparent as soon as plaster was poured into the holes to create a cast, and it turned out that the cavities were simply the shapes left behind by the long-crumbled corpses of the people who got killed by the eruption. To this day, you can see their faces and gestures frozen in time. The other thing you can see is, of course, ancient Pompei itself. The excavations have been slowly continuing over the centuries, discovering the exceptionally preserved remains of a typical ancient Roman city. The difference with other similar findings is that the ashes stopped the decay experienced by all the other works from the same era, thus mosaics are as complete and colorful as they originally were, manufacts didn’t get stolen or wrecked (too much), frescoes are mostly intact, and so on.

Possibly even more interesting for its artistic beauty is the nearby area of Ercolano, where the sumptuous villas of the richest landowners were built. Here it is possible to get a precise idea of the luxurious lifestyles of the nobility – especially when compared to the fascinating yet mundane buildings of the main city. While today the Pompei and Ercolano excavations are in dire need of better preservation and the overall job is still far from being completed, visiting this place is without any doubt the best opportunity to see ancient Roman life in its entirety – from religious temples to  brothels, from bakeries to spas, from humble housing to breathtaking palaces, from official institutions to stadiums and theatres. You won’t find 3D visual effects and thunderous explosions there, but “simply” the eerie peace of a civilization like ours. Two thousand years earlier.

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