Touching down in Naples, Jules and I could see the hazy, yet unmistakable silhouette of Mt. Vesuvius looming large on the distant horizon. Below on the foothills that led down to the ocean there were thousands of houses and apartments of the city, whose comparative scale only further accentuated the overwhelming presence of the dormant volcano. Over the years the local population and the giant mountain have somehow managed to co-exist and despite the various eruptions recorded throughout history (the most recent being in 1944), the local Napolese have always returned to the area in the knowledge that such events were relatively few and far between. However, to see first hand the destruction caused by molten lava, ash and poisonous gases you need go no further than the cities most popular tourist attraction … Pompeii.
Jules had stretched the budget for a driver to take us from Naples to Positano and as we would be passing Pompeii along the way, we asked if we could make a small detour in order to visit this much celebrated archeological site. While we first imagined that the ancient Roman city would be well away from the major populated areas, we eventually discovered that it was actually just off the local freeway and surrounded by suburbs. However, once we had exited the motorway, the proliferation of concrete constructions quickly gave way to a large green belt that much better suited the type of environment that might have existed there over 3000 years ago.
Once we entered Pompeii itself and opened up our map, we began to appreciate the scale of the original city. We could see that in its day this was quite a place, complete with bustling streets, thriving businesses, venues for public gatherings and homes representing various status in Roman society. It seemed quite incredible that a township of this size could have been suddenly covered by metres of volcanic ash on that fateful day in 79 AD and then managed to lay totally undiscovered until the 1700’s. Even the name of the original city had almost been totally forgotten with the passing of time. Today, the archeological dig still continues, with only three quarters of the site excavated and several large areas remaining roped off to the public.
Jules and I had entered through the Porta Marina (the original town gate) and then worked our way up the hill toward the ancient city to eventually arrive at ‘The Forum’, which was once the spacious main square of Pompeii. From here we headed down the main street as Romans once did in ancient times. It was fascinating to still see the grooves and ruts worn into the flagstone road as a result of years of use by horse drawn chariots. We also noticed the large stepping-stones used by town’s folk to cross the street in order to avoid getting their sandals wet when the roads were regularly flooded.
With limited time we darted around to some of the most popular venues in town during Romans times. We were more than impressed with the Amphitheatre that once seated 20,000 people and the Great Theatre, where the greatest actors and entertainers of the day would have performed. As we sat high up in this semi-circled arena enjoying a cooling breeze, a couple of patriotic Canadian tourists stood in the centre of the stage and burst into their national anthem, proving to us all the amazing acoustic qualities of this space. Of more historical significance was that here was where emperor Julius Caesar was murdered by his Roman senators on the ‘Ides of March’ (March 15) in 44 BC, a date that would remain poignant throughout history and often quoted as a date to ‘beware’ in Shakespeare’s famous play.
While the hot sun continued to beat down on the ancient streets, we both wandered around and imagined what life might have been like during these times. A visit to the Bath House revealed some amazing architectural features and relief sculptures while the ‘House of the Faun’, (so named because of the bronze statue of a dancing faun found in a central water feature) provided an indication of how the more wealthy residents of the city might have lived in their day. Of course there were also several plaster cast remnants of some of the poor souls who lost their lives on that eventful day, further humanizing the impact of the great eruption.
In the end, we were not at all surprised that Pompeii remains one of the most visited archeological sites in the world. More than any textbook or museum, the ruins provided us with a wonderful insight into the daily life of regular people during those ancient times. While our stay was all too short, we had managed to cover quite a bit of ground although to be fair, even a full day wouldn’t have fully done it justice. There was so much that had managed to be preserved and so many small details to be discovered. These streets had witnessed such a tumultuous event, but through the devastation a unique time capsule had somehow been revealed.