Pompeii [part I]


The eruption of Vesuvius on 24 August, AD 79 covered Pompeii with a layer of ash which, though destroying the living town, preserved its remains and made its excavation a relatively straightforward matter. Not all of it has been uncovered, but what has gives us a far more complete concept of a Classical town than anywhere else; nowhere else approaches it. The fact that it was destroyed by a single natural disaster which rendered it largely (though not totally) inaccessible to the survivors and to succeeding generations means that what we have has not been altered, by later demolition, by the construction of buildings for later generations, and that by uncovering it what has been discovered is a unity, fixed in time. We can see Pompeii as it was on that fateful day, whereas all the other cities in this book are only partial survivals, with buildings and other evidence often belonging to widely separate periods in their existence.

pompeii-aerial-viewPompeii, in origin, was Italian rather than Roman, and even when it was assimilated fully into the Roman system, it remained essentially nonmetropolitan, a typical country town dependent largely on its own resources and serving its own locality. It benefited, obviously, from being part of the Roman system, and its prosperity was that of the Roman world at large. It did not, however, command the resources of the capital, and though its fortunes reflected the wider pattern of historical development in Italy, they also reflected the patterns of the region.

The origins are to be sought in the impact of urbanism, the formation of recognisable cities that resulted from the establishment of Greek colonies in the area of the Bay of Naples, places such as Cumae and Naples itself. This goes back to the eighth century BC. Pompeii was never Greek. Its original inhabitants were the existing Italic peoples of the area, the Oscans, though it was close to the Greek-settled areas. The site lies near the mouth of the River Sarno, which in antiquity made a substantial loop round the eastern side of the town before entering the sea. The nucleus was an elevated part of this area, with steep sides sloping down to the water, which afforded reasonable protection. On this a small walled town was built, with what appears already to have been a grid plan of streets, with an open area (a forum) at its centre.


The area enclosed measured some 7.5 ha, the length of the perimeter being less than a kilometre. Just outside this area, to the east and above the cliff, a piece of land later incorporated into the city and known today as the ‘triangular’ forum already constituted a religious site, a sanctuary of uncertain dedication. Another sanctuary, dedicated to Apollo, stood by the side of the forum, and was already developed in the sixth century BC.

The date of the foundation of Pompeii is not certain, but the seventh century BC seems likely, when Greek settlement was already established in the area and therefore able to provoke both a reaction and at the same time, imitation. The foundation proved successful and soon expanded eastwards over an area where there are indications of burials, and which would therefore originally have been outside the town. This took in land extending from the hill to a valley which drops down to the river, perhaps already a line of communication which became a natural boundary to the expanded town. The effect of this boundary, and the walls which lined it, is still clearly visible in the latest stage of the city plan, in its fully developed form prior to the eruption of the volcano. It is clear that the boundary was a very firm one, and traces of the walls that followed it have been found. With this expansion, the ‘triangular forum’ was now incorporated within the city limits. The date of this initial expansion seems to be the sixth century BC. Fill in the grubbed out line of its wall includes material of the fourth century, indicating that Pompeii remained in this form for some 200 years, which explains how it came to be so definitively imprinted even in the final plan.

pompeii forum planFrom this nucleus the city developed considerably to the north and east, to be included in a much larger fortification wall. The date for this is the fourth century BC, at a time when the Greek cities in Italy were in decline, and the brief Empire of Dionysius I of Syracuse offered little protection. This, presumably, enabled the non-Greek population of the area, particularly the Samnites, to increase their independence of the Greeks, and so to prosper. Even so, Greek ideas of town-planning, and the creation of regular grids in the developing non-Greek cities, were employed. The blocks so formed in the town plans, moreover, were of the elongated form which was typical of the West Greek cities. The new plan of Pompeii was not absolutely regular. It may have been achieved in stages, and certainly has been subjected to some modification. The city wall, in pseudo-isodomic limestone, was of Greek inspiration. It was subsequently rebuilt and improved. The extent to which the newly included area was immediately built up is uncertain; not all of it has been excavated, and some parts may have been left relatively open, houses having gardens attached to them. But the tendency was for the town to become increasingly built up and for increasing numbers to be accommodated within it.


Traces of houses going back to the fourth century BC have been found, usually not complete but as fragments incorporated into later structures. There was constant rebuilding and redevelopment, some houses extending their area by incorporating neighbouring property, others contracting, perhaps not so much in line with general changes in the fortunes of the community as the prosperity or failure of individual families. Certainly the Hellenistic period, with the city essentially part of the Samnite orbit was one of prosperity, and leading Samnite families in Pompeii were living in some luxury.

The final phase of the city began with its involvement in the rebellion of the Italian allies against the domineering power of Rome, early in the first century BC. The Roman commander, Sulla, was ruthless in his suppression of the revolt, and as punishment Pompeii was turned into a Roman colony. Many of the Italian inhabitants, particularly the more well-to-do who would have formed the ruling aristocracy, were dispossessed, and new settlers brought in. The social change must have been considerable, but in archaeological terms the city continued. Pompeii continued to prosper and develop, though it did not increase in size, any rise in population being accounted for by increased density of habitation in some areas, though by no means all, and expansive houses continued to exist. The prosperity and increased stability were marked by the development of houses outside the protection of the walls. Here, freed from restrictions of space and the grid alignments of the streets, and the existence of property boundaries long since established, much more sumptuous and spreading forms of habitation could be developed.

pompeii bakery

Throughout this long period there was apparently no indication that Vesuvius was a volcano. There were no eruptions, and though there were other manifestations of what we know to be volcanic activity, these were not enough to cause alarm. Presumably there were earthquakes, and damage caused by them may be another explanation of the replacement of houses, but again, this would seem to have been slight, or at least unremarkable for the area. But in AD 62 there was a major tremor which caused considerable damage, particularly in the old centre of the town. This, again with hindsight, was a preliminary to the great eruption seventeen years later. What is important to observe is that many public buildings, some of them major, were still unrepaired when the eruption took place, something which suggests that there was a shortage of funds available to the city at this time.

Pompeii is often regarded as having been a fairly low-class or even vulgar place. This is probably unfair, and results from comparison with the excavated areas of its near neighbour, Herculaneum, where houses of a more luxurious type, and with indications of a higher sense of style, have been revealed. It must be remembered that only a limited part of one-quarter of Herculaneum has been uncovered, which may not be typical of the whole, while at Pompeii we have most of the settlement, and can see its inhabitants at all their various levels. Certainly the very well-to-do, people of the highest rank, even connected with the Imperial family who had houses in this area, did not live at Pompeii but in rural villas such as that at Oplontis. Even the local well-to-do of Pompeii may have preferred to live outside the town. The conversion of luxurious houses into industrial or semi-industrial establishments, which is attested at Pompeii, may indicate a change in personal fortune, or perhaps a desire to escape from a place which may have seemed less than safe after the earthquake.


All in all, Pompeii was probably typical of a long-established Italian town of a type which, but for the chance of the eruption, would normally be lost to our understanding, except in a most fragmentary state. All cities in the ancient world are obviously subject to change, and all the indications are that Pompeii itself was changing at the time it was buried. If the eruption had occurred ten or twenty years later, then what would have been buried would not have been identical to what we have. So the remains are by no means definitive; they reveal, simply, what existed on that fateful day in AD 79, and thus provide a completely different insight into the realities of the ancient world.

When it was destroyed, the city in the strict sense was largely defined by its Hellenistic walls, the system which, with renewals and improvements, goes back to the fourth-century enlargement. These no longer functioned militarily, and in places had been breached by later development. They were still an embellishment, and the gates through them marked the moment of entry into the city. Outside them were the cemeteries, and particularly to the north-west, unrestricted by the river, the suburban development of spacious villas. The gates led to the principal streets. At the south-west the Porta Marina (the names, as of the streets, are mostly modern) led by the short Via Marina eastwards into the forum, with its line continued beyond the forum by the Via dell’ Abondanza, which formed one of the two principal east-west streets, leaving on the east side of the town at the Porta di Sarno. The other east-west street was parallel to the main section of the Via dell’ Abondanza, and began at the Porta di Nola. The main street across the city, because of its staged development not quite at right-angles to the Via dell’ Abondanza, was the Via Stabiana/Via Vesuvio line, running from the Porta di Stabia in the south to the Porta di Vesuvio at the north. The original town, of course, lay to the west of this street. It was here that the majority of the important public buildings were concentrated.

Central to these was the forum. This now took the long, narrow form which was found in other developed planned cities in Italy such as Ostia, extending northwards to the limits of the original town. Here at Pompeii it dated to a reorganisation in the second century BC. It was virtually rectangular, except at its northern end which followed the line of the old city wall and its successor street. Its rectangle was defined by colonnades to the west, south and east, with a hexastyle podium temple, the capitolium, dominating the north end and obscuring, like the temple of Mars Ultor in Augustus’ forum at Rome, the irregularity of the end behind it. At the time of the eruption the temple was still in ruins from the earthquake.

pompeii capitolium

The forum was surrounded by other buildings of public importance. On the centre of the west side was the temple of Apollo; this sanctuary seems to have existed before the sixth century BC, and the first temple was built in that century. The final temple probably dates to the second century BC. It was peripteral with four-sided Ionic capitals supporting an entablature with a triglyph frieze. It was damaged in the earthquake, but not severely, and in the course of the subsequent repairs the capitals were converted into Corinthian with added stucco work. It stood in its own courtyard, which it almost filled, leaving little more than a forecourt and passageways round the side and back. Next to this was one of the most interesting of Pompeii’s public buildings, the basilica, a rectangular structure with one of its ends, rather than the side, placed facing onto the forum. This again is second century BC in date, one of the oldest examples of this category of building in Italy. It was divided into a nave and aisles by a four-sided internal Corinthian colonnade supporting an overall roof. At the end opposite the forum entrance (which was open) was an elaborately embellished platform, the tribunal. The basilica was also in a ruined state when the eruption took place.


On the east side of the forum, at the north end by the side of the capitolium, was the market building, not completely repaired. Then, next to this, an openfronted precinct, probably serving a cult, which may have been that of the Bona Dea, also left in ruins after the earthquake. Then, sandwiched between the precinct and the next building, a temple dedicated to the cult of the Emperor Vespasian. Next, the courtyard building of Eumachia, a priestess, dedicated to Augustus and his wife Livia, and finally, at the end, the comitium. Three small administrative buildings were placed side by side along the southern end. Other public buildings were in the vicinity of the forum. In the south-west corner, and adjacent to the basilica, was the precinct and temple of Venus, badly damaged in the earthquake, and unrestored.


At the crossing of the street leading north from behind the forum and the Via della Fortuna was a small temple of Fortuna Augusta, again in a ruined state after the earthquake. In the block on the other side of the forum street was one of the public bath buildings, the Forum Baths, originally put up at the time of Sulla’s foundation of the Roman colony. These were of the usual, asymmetric type, with an exercise yard attached. They are well preserved, and unlike so many of the temples had been fully restored by the time of the eruption. The hot room, which is apsidal and vaulted, has an interesting banded treatment to its ceiling. The side of this block actually facing the Forum Street is a set of shops backing on to the bath complex.