Pompeii is in crisis

From ArtNewspaper:

A Unesco report has identified serious problems with the World Heritage Site, including structural damage to buildings, vandalism and a lack of qualified staff. Unesco’s director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, tells The Art Newspaper: “The state of conservation is a problem, because of a lack of maintenance of very fragile structures. Visitor services need a dramatic improvement.”

The collapse of a column at Pompeii on 22 December raised further alarm. The column was in a pergola in the courtyard of the House of Loreio Tiburtino, whose adjacent rooms have very fine frescoes.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD killed Pompeii’s inhabitants but preserved their buildings. The city was covered with ash, and it was only after its rediscovery in 1748 that excavations began. In 1997, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site. The Pompeii crisis came to a head with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, known as the House of the Gladiators, in November 2010, along with three further collapses later in the month. This was after extremely heavy rain.

Unesco sent a mission supervised by Christopher Young, the head of world heritage and international policy at English Heritage, who says that Pompeii represents “the world’s most important Roman remains, in terms of what it tells us about daily life”. He was assisted by two Paris-based specialists representing the International Council on Monuments and Sites: Jean-Pierre Adam, a professor at the Ecole du Louvre, and Alix Barbet, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Their report, which has had virtually no international press coverage, was submitted last June to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in Paris. It covers Pompeii and the nearby sites of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, on the ­outskirts of Naples.

The Unesco report says that the “conditions that caused [the Schola Armaturarum] collapses are widespread within the site”. Storms last autumn raised fears of further significant damage, but so far it has not been serious.

Although much of Pompeii ­remains in good repair, the problems are numerous, including “inappropriate restoration ­methods and a general lack of qualified staff… restoration projects are outsourced and the quality of the work of the contractors is not being assessed. An efficient drainage system is lacking, ­leading to water infiltration and excessive moisture that gradually degrades the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor. The mission was also concerned by the amount of plant growth, particularly ivy.”

Staffing at Pompeii remains a fundamental problem. The structure is “very rigid”, with “jobs ­being secure until retirement”, making it “virtually impossible to recruit new staff”. Although around 470 people are employed at Pompeii, it is “very short” of professional staff, there are “very few” maintenance workers and only 23 guards are on site at any one time.

The guards do not wear uniforms and fail to display their badges. The experts observed them “grouped together in threes or fours”, which meant there was a limited presence on the enormous site. Since 1987, the number of guards has been reduced by a quarter while visitor numbers have increased considerably.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

A further problem is that much of Pompeii is “closed”. In 1956, 66 restored houses were open to visitors, but this number has fallen to 15 (only five of which are always open). “Large areas of Pompeii are not accessible to ­visitors owing to the lack of guards, so accessible parts are overvisited and suffer considerably from visitor erosion,” according to the report. The mission found that the most serious vandalism was in houses that are closed to visitors, because of “the derisory effectiveness of efforts to prohibit access”.

Management changes have resulted in further problems. In July 2008, the Italian government declared Pompeii to be in a “state of emergency”, putting it under special administration until July 2010 (two commissioners served during this period: Renato Profili and then Marcello Fiori). There have been four successive superintendents since September 2009: Mariarosaria Salvatore, Giuseppe Proietti, Jeannette Papadopoulos and Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro.

The Unesco mission found that, although a management plan was drawn up in 2008, “site staff were not able to show clearly that the plan was actually used”. Scarce resources have been diverted from conservation and maintenance to “non-urgent” projects, such as the reconstruction of the theatre. The report says that such projects were “probably done with an educational aim in mind, but may also reflect a certain attraction for ‘entertainment archaeology’.”

“Uncontrolled development” near Pompeii is also criticised. At its meeting last June, Unesco approved a resolution saying that it “deeply regrets” not having been informed about the construction of “a large concrete building” north of the Porta di Nola. This is to be used by archaeologists for offices and storage.

Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the superintendent of Pompeii from 1995 to 2009, says that the report is “very meticulous”. Its proposals are along the lines of those suggested during his tenure, but “delays” were caused mainly by staffing problems. Guzzo welcomes Unesco’s involvement, hoping it will “spur the Italian government to give Pompeii more resources, both financial and professional”.

With Unesco poised to assist Italian specialists, an action plan could be developed. This should provide a basis for spending the €105m that has been committed for Pompeii by the European Union. However, there are some concerns that the project may be affected by the withdrawal of $65m a year of Unesco funding from the US, following the admission of Palestine in October.

Unesco has asked the Italian authorities to introduce monitoring of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata by 1 February, along with a statement on the site’s “outstanding universal value”. A report must be submitted by February 2013 on “the possible inscription of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger”.

Although Pompeii is among Italy’s most important heritage sites, it is not the only one to face intractable problems. Italy’s 47 World Heritage Sites include Venice and its Lagoon and the historic centre of Rome, to take two examples. However, Bandarin, an Italian citizen, stresses that Unesco’s agreement with Italy is “only for the World Heritage Site of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata”.


Pompeii: A symbol of Italy’s sloppiness

From Telegraph:

For visitors to Pompeii, they are a guaranteed crowd pleaser: erotic frescoes, including one of Priapus, the god of fertility, adorning the walls of a 2,000 year old Roman villa.

Or rather they were until two years ago, when the House of the Vettii closed for a restoration project which was supposed to last a year but which still grinds on, the villa encased in scaffolding and a sign outside offering no indication of when it might reopen.


Priapus with Caduceus


Pompeii may be the best preserved Roman city in the world, thanks to the volcanic ash from nearby Mt Vesuvius which smothered it after a catastrophic eruption in AD79, but critics say years of neglect and indifference have turned it into an international embarrassment and an emblem of the dysfunction which plagues so much of Italian public life.

Exquisite frescoes are scarred with modern graffiti, weeds are growing out of painted walls and there is a dearth of interpretive signs.

Many of the most famous villas in the city are padlocked behind signs reading “Lavori in corso” – Work in Progress – while the city’s most gruesome but irresistible attractions, the plaster casts of ancient Romans who perished in the searing hot ash and pumice emitted by Vesuvius, are displayed in dusty glass cabinets standing on rusted metal legs.

The sense of crisis came to a head last week when the respected broadsheet, Corriere della Sera, ran a front-page editorial under the headline “The humiliation of Pompeii”.


From Casa del Centenario


“The fact is that this archeological area, which is unique in the world, is unfortunately the symbol of all the sloppiness and inefficiencies of a country that has lost its good sense and has not managed to recover it,” the editorial said.

The editorial sparked a political row, with the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi and the opposition blaming each other for Pompeii’s shambolic state.

Nicola Cosentino, a close ally of Mr Berlusconi and a regional coordinator for the governing party, said Pompeii was “like a souk” when the government came into power two years ago.

But Luisa Bossa, an MP with the opposition Democratic Party, said thousands of tourists witnessed the “decay and abandonment” of Pompeii every day. “The site is on its last legs. It is a symbol of the fact that this government cares nothing for Italy’s heritage.”

Around two million visitors a year pay 11 euros each to visit the site, generating annual revenue of around 20 million euros, but archaeologists say it is not sufficient to fund the unending task of restoring and maintaining the site.


Tile Mosaic, Satyr & Nymph, House of the Faun


The Berlusconi government has also made deep cuts to arts and heritage funding – the amount of money allotted to the maintenance of ancient sites has dropped from 30 million euros in 2007 to just under 19 million this year.

But Salvatore Settis, a former president of the government’s heritage committee, said blame could not be assigned only to the current government. “Parties on both sides have completely marginalised culture and heritage,” he said.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a British professor of archaeology who has worked at Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum for more than 20 years, said it was overly simplistic to pin the blame on Italian inefficiency and in-fighting.

“The fundamental reason why there are such enormous problems is the scale and complexity of the site,” said Prof Wallace-Hadrill, now the master of Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University.

The Italian government is believed to be working on the establishment of a foundation which would invite private donors to give money to help preserve Pompeii, possibly in return for advertising opportunities – just as a similar scheme was launched this summer to save the crumbling Colosseum in Rome.

From Telegraph.

Pompeii [part II]

pompei_-_tempio_di_iside1A second area of important public building is situated east of the original town, along the side of the Via Stabiana. It includes the ‘triangular forum’, left completely ruined and unrepaired after the earthquake. Next to it, to the east and accessible from the ‘triangular forum’ sanctuary, is an entertainment complex, the main open-air theatre, a smaller theatre contained in a roofed structure, and a gymnasium. By the main theatre is the sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Of these buildings, the gymnasium and the temple of Isis had been fully repaired. The main theatre belongs to the Hellenistic period, but was completely reconstructed in the time of Augustus. The auditorium is horseshoe-shaped, rather than the more usual semicircle of Roman theatres, and its ends have a slightly angled alignment, not as pronounced as in a Greek theatre, but reminiscent of them. An inscription records rebuilding at the expense of Marcus Holcorius Rufus. The new building was embellished in marble. The stage takes the typical western form, a room running the full width fronted by niches, the central one apsidal, the others rectangular, in which are placed the usual three doors. The smaller theatre includes a curved series of seats within the rectangular structure, the stage being plain. It is essentially similar in arrangement to the building put up by Agrippa in the agora at Athens, so that it should be regarded as a concert hall, an odeum, rather than a theatre. Repairs to these structures had started, but were not complete when the volcano erupted.


A little to the north, still by the side of the Via Stabiana, are the Stabian Baths. These, too, had been damaged, but most of the necessary repairs had been completed. This is an interesting and well-preserved structure, a splendid example of the normal Roman bath type. Its origin is complex. The area is on the line of the wall of the earlier, smaller settlement, and the irregular shape of the block results from these alignments. After the expansion of the town and demolition of the wall, part of the area (within the original city, up to the wall) was developed as a conventional house. The rest, its alignment dictated by the new outer streets rather than the wall, seems to have become a simple exercise ground or palaestra of trapezoidal plan with a series of small hip-bath arrangements along its northern side. This still left a space between its eastern limit and the Via Stabiana, which is on yet another alignment. It was in this space, also trapezoidal but with an angle running in the opposite way to that of the palaestra, that the suite of bathing rooms was developed—essentially a series of rectangular chambers placed side by side, so forming a supporting sequence, over which came, as in the Forum Baths, vaulted roofs in concrete. There were two sets of these, changing room, cold room, warm room, hot room, a smaller set to the north, presumably for women, a larger set to the south for men, also provided with a sweat room.


On the plan the rooms seem haphazard and ill-arranged, merely fitted into the available space, though in fact they make good usage of the provision of heat from a central furnace complex. These irregularities were perhaps made less noticeable within the structure, where of course the impact was of the individual room, particularly since these rooms were decorated with fine stucco work, some of which survives. Even in their final form, the Stabian Baths retained their distinctive alignments, long after the early walls were forgotten, and the exercise ground that was the essential origin of the system.

A final area of public structures is tucked away in the extreme south-east corner of the developed city. This includes a large rectangular exercise ground (141 by 107 stabian-bathsm), flanked with porticos to the south, west and north. This was the Campus, and served as a training ground for the young men of Pompeii. At the centre was a large open-air swimming pool, 34.55 by 22.25 m. In the middle of the west side is a small shrine, presumably for the Imperial cult, and consequent upon the emphasis given by Augustus to the proper training and upbringing of the young. This faced onto the amphitheatre, the oldest to survive in Italy, dating back to the time of Sulla. Earlier amphitheatres are known to have existed in Italy, but seem to have been only temporary structures. The new Pompeian amphitheatre took advantage of developments in techniques of construction, employing cement, which had been perfected in the previous decades. The amphitheatre was constructed making use of the natural slope of the land above the river, but also by excavating down to form the arena, and throwing back the excavated earth to form a bank on which the seating could be placed. This bank of earth was retained in place by an outer concreted wall, elliptical in plan, which was in turn enclosed within another wall and earth fill forming a larger but flatter ellipse. Double staircases were placed against this at intervals, coming over arcaded supports. The result was an extremely durable structure which resisted the earthquake well, and was certainly in full working order at the time of the eruption.


The amphitheatre features in one of the rare occasions when Pompeii was mentioned by a Roman historian prior to the event of its destruction. In AD 59 a celebration of gladiatorial games in the amphitheatre provoked a riot between the inhabitants of Pompeii and the neighbouring town of Nuceria, who were visiting Pompeii for the spectacle (an interesting example of the way in which a substantial public building might serve not just for the inhabitants of the city in which it was situated, but for the neighbourhood as well). There was loss of life and many wounded as a result. The matter was referred to the senate at Rome, and a ten-year ban imposed on such gatherings. The whole incident was described by Tacitus, who implied that there were overtones of illegal association involved. The incident obviously created a local sensation, for it was recorded at Pompeii itself in the form of a wall painting which gave a bird’s eye view of the riot (a most interesting choice of viewpoint, given that the artist could never have seen an aerial view like this) depicting the amphitheatre complete with the fight in the arena, the seats, the riot, the two outer support walls to the seats, and one of the approach staircases with its arcaded support. Beyond were the city walls and towers, and to the side the Campus with its swimming pool.

Thus the public buildings of Pompeii comprise an interesting selection, though none of them is outstanding, the basilica and the amphitheatre being the only structures with any real significance for the history of Roman architecture, and that partly because other comparable structures of similar date do not survive in the same way. If we had just the ruins of these structures, Pompeii would still be of interest, but not of outstanding importance. What is important, then, is the simultaneous preservation of the complete town, of the ordinary, private section, the houses, the shops, not simply as foundation but with walls often intact, and with enough evidence to enable the restoration of roofs. Many of the furnishings were either removed (if portable) by the fleeing inhabitants, or if perishable, were destroyed, though some could be restored by the simple expedient of pouring plaster into the holes left in the volcanic ash when the original perished. Even so, enough survives, together with the decoration of the walls, to preserve the impression of real, actual houses, not just reconstructions on paper. It is this completeness which makes Pompeii more important as an example of an ancient city than it actually was when it functioned as a city.

The type of house which predominates is clearly traditional, though certainly influenced by the domestic architecture of neighbouring Greek cities; it can be traced back at least to the fourth century BC. The same type is found elsewhere: in the Etruscan area (e.g. at Marzabotto, of an even earlier date than at Pompeii), and, of course, in Rome itself. In Imperial Rome they belonged to the privileged minority, pressure of space forcing the ordinary inhabitants into the tenement blocks. There are signs of some pressure at Pompeii, houses being given upper floors which served as separate flats, but in general there was still abundant building land, and the single-storey traditional house survived for a wider stratum of society. Pompeii is therefore the best place to see these houses.


The type can be seen in one of the very earliest houses to survive at Pompeii, the House of the Surgeon, in the area to the north of the original settlement. It is built of the local Sarno limestone, with an ashlar façade, the internal walls a mixture of limestone and lava in rubble form, since they did not have to worry about their appearance, being covered in plaster. The inner walls are reinforced with large limestone blocks laid vertically and horizontally. The binding agent in this early structure, which predates the development of cement, is clay. The house is entered from the middle of its south-west side, where it faces onto the Via Consolare as it approaches the Gate of Herculaneum. There are three doorways on this façade, one the door to a separate shop to the right. The centre door leads into the house proper, and coincides with its axis. The door to the left of this is to a shop which also has a doorway communicating with the interior of the house. This shop is balanced by a similar room on the other side of the entrance, accessible from within. The entrance forms a short lobby, the fauces or ‘jaws’, generally closable at both ends, if only for privacy. It leads directly onto the main central room of the house, the ‘dark’ or ‘black’ room, the atrium. Its original form in the House of the Surgeon is uncertain. At the centre is the pool or cistern, the impluvium, which is normal in developed atria, and receives rainwater from the inward—sloping roof above, which leads to an opening directly above it, the compluvium. This may not belong to the earliest phase of the house, in which case water supplies would have been drawn from one of the numerous wells found within the city area.


This is important for the origin of the type. The atrium probably corresponds to, and may well be derived from, the central courtyards of Greek houses which must have antedated the House of the Surgeon with examples at nearby Naples. The pent roofs surrounding the peristyles of Greek courtyard houses served the same function, to collect rainwater and direct it into a cistern under the court, but in this basic Italian-type house there are no columns forming a peristyle to support such a roof. Traditionally (this is the Tuscan form of atrium, as defined by Vitruvius), the roof of the atrium is supported merely on beams which run across from wall to wall. There are two rooms of balancing dimensions either side of the atrium, and entered from it. The main rooms, though, are across the end, preceded by a widening of the atrium to the outer edges of the house. These widenings are the wings (alae), one of which would house the domestic shrine (the lararium). They correspond to the comparable widening in front of the main rooms often found in Greek houses and, perhaps equally importantly, in front of groups of rooms in very early Etruscan houses, where they often form a forecourt without any sign of an atrium. There are three main rooms at the end. The centre one (tablinum) is a reception room, and is open to the atrium for its full width. The others are domestic, one probably a dining room. This is the plan of the basic house, but even in the House of the Surgeon there are extensions to it, an irregular space to the right, entered by a corridor at the back of the ala. The tablinum is extended into this area beyond its original outer line. There is also more space at the back, entered through the tablinum which, being entirely open across its back as well as its front, appears to serve as little more than a passage, though the probability of the openings being closed with curtains is a strong one. Within this space is a small garden. This traditional house, then, with its basic rectangular and symmetrical plan, has already encroached into available spaces to the side and rear.


Other houses are more complex. The House of the Vettii, in the same district, retains some elements of the traditional form, the fauces and atrium flanked by rooms, as well as the alae, but the back of the atrium leads straight into a substantial formal garden, surrounded with a peristyle and a large tablinum-type room facing it from the side. There are other secondary areas incorporated into the plan, and staircases leading to an upper floor over at least parts of the house. The resulting plan is confusion, but the quality of the decoration in this house shows that it belonged to substantial people.

Epompei_-_casa_del_fauno1ven more splendid is the House of the Faun, one of the major Pompeian town houses, which has also clearly developed by the acquisition and inclusion of adjacent properties. There are the usual shops opening onto the road, and two fauces, indicating originally two separate houses, since both lead to their own atrium. That on the left is the larger, with three rooms to each side, as well as the alae. It is of the Tuscan type, without any internal supports. The atrium on the right is smaller, but has four columns round the impluvium (i.e. it is tetrastyle). On its left it shares the rooms of the main atrium; it is difficult to see to which atrium they originally belonged. The tablinum of the lefthand atrium is open at both ends to form a passageway through to a garden with a colonnaded surround; there is also a narrow passage into it from the second atrium. At the back of the garden is another tablinum, also open across its back and leading to a still larger colonnaded garden at the very back. The plot occupied by this house is large enough for eight basic traditional houses. It clearly incorporates two, one of which cannot have had a full plan, but the two gardens at the back indicate a clear availability of surplus land for those who were wealthy enough to acquire it.

pompeii27-the-house-of-the-faunThe standard, traditional, Pompeian house, of symmetrical arrangement and with the conventional elements in their proper places, is in fact something of a myth in Pompeii as it was at the time of its destruction. It is not even clear, as the House of the Faun shows, that Pompeii once, in its early days, normally constructed this basic type. Unlike most Greek planned cities, where the aim was to allot equal-dimensioned plots for individual houses, the blocks at Pompeii are often unequally divided, and because of the inconsistencies of the street plan, include irregularly shaped areas. It would appear that building plots were owned on the basis of available and therefore variable wealth of the individual families, rather than allotted on foundation by the community, though with the uncertainties of the early history and the exact contexts of the various extensions to the city plan, we cannot actually see the process at work. The result is that most of the surviving, eventual houses deviate quite considerably from the theoretical common type, either by being substantially larger and more complex (frequently incorporating adjacent properties), or by being smaller, without the full range of rooms, perhaps by abandoning the strictly symmetrical arrangement and not having rooms on both sides of the atrium, as must have been the case with one of the two houses incorporated into the House of the Faun.

pompeii30-the-house-of-the-faunIn some cases (the House of the Faun again) the more complex and extended plan is clearly not the original form, and encroachment on adjacent building plots may be a reason for the existence of smaller houses. But the main point is clear. Pompeian houses cannot be reduced to a simple type, probably always showed distinct variations, and in their complexity certainly reflect the social complexities of the city as it was in the first century AD. There is another clear point which emerges from Pompeii and its remains. The public buildings are largely of categories, or specific forms, which are identifiably Roman. There is no real equivalent, in the earlier pre-Roman state of the Greek cities, for the basilica, the bath buildings or the amphitheatre. Other public buildings—the theatres, the proportions of the forum, the exact type of the temples—reveal a distinctly Romanised form. The private buildings, too, as we have seen, are variations on an Italo-Etruscan type, in terms of plan and arrangement of rooms.

pompeian-style-2When it comes to the embellishment of these houses, and of the other buildings, the influence of Greece and the Greek cities is paramount. All houses, whatever their form of construction, had walls with painted systems of decoration above their plaster. In the nineteenth century these were categorised in the four ‘Pompeian’ styles: the first style went back to the second century BC or earlier, and was followed by the second style, the third style and finally the fourth style, which was popular at the time of the eruption. Further discoveries have shown that these systems were not limited to Pompeii (they occur at Rome itself) or even Pompeian in origin, for elements of the first style have been identified in painted plaster systems from Hellenistic Athens and Delos, and the second style at Alexandria and elsewhere, while there is a strongly Egyptianising element discernible in some decorations of the third style. Here we are seeing something which is universal in the Hellenised Mediterranean world from the Hellenistic period onwards.


Similarly, where these decorative schemes on the walls include actual pictures, the subjects are normally taken from Greek myth and legend (the example referred to above, showing the strictly Pompeian subject of the riot in the amphitheatre, is a virtually unique exception to this rule). Moreover, the style and the details prove that they are not original inventions of Pompeian artists, but copies, no doubt with a varying degree of accuracy, from presumably well-known originals by the great painters of fourth-century and Hellenistic Greece. The same is true of the other arts. Many of the statues are probably pastiches in the Greek manner, but there are also many important copies of famous Greek statues, particularly by the masters of the fifth century BC where, invariably, the original is lost and the Greek artist known only from the copies at Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Roman places.

pompeii120-vila-of-the-mysteriesThus Pompeii, far from being a vulgar place in the pejorative sense, fits into a general pattern of Hellenism. The towns of Italy develop through contact with Greece, and retain the essential characteristics of urban life that developed in the Greek world. There remains one puzzle. Though some Greek cities sustained enlarged urban populations through trade and industry, the great majority relied primarily on the agricultural exploitation of the surrounding countryside. Scenes such as that recorded by Xenophon in his Hellenica, of the democratic revolutionaries slipping into Thebes in 378 BC by mingling with the throngs of Thebans who had been working in their fields returning to the city at dusk before the gates were closed, must have been repeated— without the revolutionaries—daily over the whole of the Greek world. Cities were places where people lived together for reasons of safety, rather than in isolated farms in the countryside. The houses at Olynthus, dating to the fourth century BC, though part of a regular urban plan, include storerooms for the agricultural equipment used by the residents in their fields, together with storage for their crops.

pompei_-_tempio_della_fortuna_augusteaThe people of Pompeii must have had various sources of revenue, and by the first century AD rural estates, often on a substantial scale and related to country houses, were an important element in the economic pattern. Certainly the villas outside Pompeii were organised for the exploitation of the countryside, and some of them show, with their storerooms and other internal arrangements, how they were equipped to do this. The traditional Pompeian house, dating back in form to the fourth and fifth centuries BC, belongs to an earlier age, when peasant landholdings, combined with a house inside the fortifications of the town, were normal. No doubt the rooms to either side of the fauces of the traditional house, where they opened onto the street (rather than examples which form ‘porter’s lodges’ to the entrance passage) originally served the same functions as the storerooms of the Olynthan houses.

pompeii10-hrine-to-the-imperial-familyWhether they remained so throughout Pompeii’s history is uncertain. Many of them, particularly those with built-in mezzanine floors, were used as shops with the mezzanine providing basic living accommodation for the shopkeeper. Others have equipment or counters in them which prove their usage. That there was a need for shops is proved by the rows of purpose-built tabernae, such as those by the Forum Baths. A community less self-reliant, deprived of fields and unable to grow its own produce needs more shops, and these certainly are a feature of Roman as opposed to Greek cities. Even so, the pattern of similarity is strong. The contrast rather is with the dense packed metropolitan centres, with the population crammed into tenements, but here Rome and Ostia differ from the general run of Roman towns as much as Alexandria does from the Greek.


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.