Hannah Drake

Exploring Pompeii

TravelHannah DrakeComment

The first time I ever heard about Pompeii, I was in middle school and my older brother wanted to teach me Latin. I had an assignment to write a short “essay” about the destruction of Pompeii and if you’ve ever learned a new language, you know how basic those first writing assignments can be. Still, I remember so vividly sitting at the computer at our old house researching what happened to the city in 79AD. These days, I only know two words in Latin—mother and father—except for a few phrases I picked up working in my dad’s law office, but the fascination with Pompeii lives on. So with the proximity to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, there was no question we were going during our honeymoon. It was a must!

We decided it would make the most sense if we went the day we drove from Naples to the Amalfi Coast because it’s on the way. We had done some research before we left England, but discovered that we didn’t really need to pre-book anything. That day, we were able to find reasonable parking right next to the secondary entrance (near the amphitheatre) and the line to buy tickets was less than 10 minutes. Tickets, by the way, were €13 for the day.

So here’s what you need to know:

THE HISTORY

I wish I still had my Latin essay, but it’s probably buried in the depths of a computer’s hard drive that likely doesn’t exist anymore. There’s so much to know about Pompeii — it had a rich history before the volcanic eruption — but I’ll just stick to some main bullet points. Literally.

  • The first settlements on the site date back to the 8th century BC when the Oscans founded five villages in the area.

  • In the 3rd century BC, the area was introduced to the Roman customs and traditions and the first Roman army entered the Campanian plain in the Roman war against the Latins.

  • In 89 AD, it became a Roman colony and played an important role in the passages of goods to Rome. Due to the region’s agricultural fertility, Pompeii and a number of other towns has been established at the base of Mount Vesuvius by the 1st century AD.

  • The citizens of Pompeii were used to minor earthquakes. Pliny the Younger wrote that earth tremors "were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania".

  • On 5 February 62 AD, a severe earthquake did considerable damage around the bay, and particularly to Pompeii. It is thought that the earthquake would have registered between 5 and 6 on the Richter magnitude scale. The same day, there were to be two sacrifices in Pompeii in honour of the anniversary of Augustus being named “Father of Nation” and also a feast to honour the guardian spirits of the city. Chaos followed the earthquake and fires caused by broken oil lamps added to the panic. The cities of Herculaneum and Nuceria, located nearby, were also affected. Temples, houses, bridges, and roads were destroyed. In fact, it’s thought that almost all buildings in the city were affected to some degree. In the days that followed, anarchy ruled the city—theft and starvation plagued the survivors.

  • Although it is unknown how many, a considerable number of citizens moved to other cities within the Roman Empire. Between the earthquake in 62 and the eruption in 79, some rebuilding was done by those who remained in Pompeii, but some of the damage had still not been repaired at the time of the eruption.

  • Current researchers have expressed concerns about structures that were being restored at the time of the eruption in 79, presumably still damaged from the earthquake in 62. It’s thought that the structures were still being repaired 17 years after the earthquake was due to the increasing frequency that lead up to the eruption that ultimately buried the city. 

  • The exact date of the eruption in 79 has been disputed due to conflicting accounts and what has been uncovered in the city, including crops typical for the autumn, heavier clothing the victims were wearing, sealed wine (which would have been done at the end of October), and coins that could not have been minted before September. It had long been thought that the eruption was an August event based on one version of Pliny the Younger’s letter but another version gives a date of the eruption as late as 23 November. A later date is consistent with a charcoal inscription at the site, discovered in 2018, which includes the date of 17 October and which must have been recently written.

  • It was previously believed that most victims died of suffocation due to the ash in the air, however it’s now believed that in Pompeii and the surrounding cities, heat was the main cause of death. The results of a study published in 2010, show that exposure to at least 250 °C (482 °F) hot surges (known as pyroclastic flows) at a distance of 6 miles from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings.

  • The city of Pompeii and its citizens were covered in up to 12 different layers of tephra, totalling 82 feet deep, which rained down on the city for six hours.

  • Pliny the Younger provided a first-hand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from his position across the Bay of Naples at Misenum but written 25 years after the event. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, with whom he had a close relationship, died while attempting to rescue stranded victims. As admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts. Volcanologists have recognised the importance of Pliny the Younger's account of the eruption by calling similar events "Plinian".

  • In the centuries that followed, the city was forgotten. In 1592, digging an underground channel to divert the river Sarno led to the discovery of ancient walls covered with frescos and inscriptions. The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and he unearthed a few more frescoes, then covered them over again. Nothing more came of the discovery. Herculaneum was properly rediscovered in 1738 by workmen digging for the foundations of a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. The Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre then undertook excavations to find further remains, discovering Pompeii a decade later, in 1748. Charles of Bourbon took great interest in the findings, even after becoming King of Spain, because he felt the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural prestige of Naples.

  • After excavations were taken over by Giuseppe Fiorelli, voids in the ash layer were found that contained human remains. He devised the technique of injecting the voids with plaster to recreate the victims of the volcano. The technique is still used today, but with clear resin, which is more durable and doesn’t destroy the bones, allowing for further analysis.

  • The discovery of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum left the archaeologists with a dilemma between the open sexuality in ancient Rome and the more conservative Counter-Reformation Europe. An unknown number of discoveries were hidden away again due to their sexual nature.

  • Many artefacts from the buried cities have been and are still preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. In 1819, when King Francis visited the Pompeii exhibition there with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a so-called "secret cabinet", a gallery within the museum accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the Naples "Secret Museum" was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still allowed entry only in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.

WHAT TO BRING

Your day at Pompeii isn’t going to be a usual day of tourism. Yes, you’ll go back in time and explore an ancient city frozen in time. But it’s just that. Frozen in time. Even though it’s a “park”, don’t expect another spot over run with tourism. The emphasis is on the archaeology part of the archaeological park. Inside Pompeii, there are no shops, restaurants, cafes, or anything. They have committed to preserving the history of Pompeii and that means not modernising anything inside the city gates.

That said, make sure you come prepared. Bring a water bottle—maybe even two. There are water fountains on the main road where you can refill your bottles, but that’s a ways from the entrance and plenty to see before you get back there. Bring sunscreen because you will be out in the sun all day. There is some shade, but not much, especially when you get back toward the heart of the city. Many of the buildings don’t have roofs and most of the trees are near the entrances. So while you’re at it, you might want to bring a hat.

If you plan on being in the park over a meal, bring something to snack on. Like I said, you’re not going to find any restaurants or cafes to stop for a quick bite inside the city ruins, so you’ll have to snack on the go. Just please make sure you take your trash with you. Don’t be that guy littering in a 2,000 year old city. Or ever, really.

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WHAT TO SEE

You can imagine there is A LOT to see, considering it’s an entire city that was buried and rediscovered. When you’re wandering around, it will seriously blow your mind at how well the city has been rediscovered and preserved. And after already centuries of work, there is still more to be discovered.

There are a few things you cannot miss:

  • The Amphitheater

  • The Thermal Baths

  • The Forum

  • The Temple of Jupiter

  • The Temple of Apollo

  • The House of the Faun

  • The Cave Canem Mosaic

  • The Garden of Fugitives

  • The House of Vettii

  • The House of the Tragic Poet

HOW MUCH TIME YOU SHOULD SPEND

Of course it all depends on how thorough you want to be, how much time you want to spend looking at everything, how slowly you make your way through the park. I told my mom she could have easily spent a day or two there. But at the bare minimum, everyone should plan on spending at least three hours in the park to see all the important things.

OTHER TIPS

Start at the back and work your way back toward the entrance. Truth be told, seeing Pompeii is exhausting. You don’t have enough shade and I promise you didn’t bring enough water. It’s going to wipe you out. Of course there are interesting things all over the archaeological park, but some of the coolest stuff is toward the back, where the town centre was. We made the mistake of taking a lot of time to see the houses and so we were totally wiped out by the time we made it to the hotbed of their city and culture. We powered through, but we definitely could have spent more time seeing the temples, public baths, and everything else back there.

Get an audio guide and the app. We totally fell victim to the tourist shop outside the entrance selling audio guides. We ended up getting two for €15 but we easily could have gotten away with one. The information at every location is short enough that we could have just passed it back and forth and not lost any time. It was beneficial to know what exactly we were looking at and, even though it wasn’t the most comprehensive audio tour I’ve ever heard, it did point out some things I would have otherwise missed and provided some information on the history of the building, including what it was originally used as and the process of its rediscovery. There are also a few different apps you can use to guide you through the park. I recommend downloading whichever one you want before you get there because I didn’t have the service to download it. Just be prepared to pay for the download. The official app, I believe called Discover Pompeii, will show you recreations of what they think the ruins looked like before the eruption.

HERCULANEUM

In the same eruption that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum was also buried. Because of the differing locations, the eruption effected the cities differently. For example, the deep pyroclastic material which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, stairways, cupboards doors, food, scrolls, and around 300 skeletons. Herculaneum is almost more complete in its preservation, but less of the ancient city has been excavated since the modern town of Ercolano is built on top of it. However, when you’re there you’ll see more shade, fewer people, better frescoes, and more detail. You’ll even walk on better roads!

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum are deteriorating due to exposure to the elements and increased tourism, but especially Pompeii (2.5 visitors annually!). Visiting Herculaneum takes some of the pressure off Pompeii and will help both cities last longer. They’re both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but both run the risk of becoming endangered.

It’s €11 to visit Herculaneum, or you can get a €20 ticket to visit both.

WHERE WE ATE

After we explored the ruins of the ancient city, we found a pizza place right outside the exit in modern day Pompei. They were advertising a deal of a pizza and a drink for €5 and you just can’t beat that! The place is called Le Delizie and it was so good we went back the day we visited Mount Vesuvius. (It’s the only restaurant we went to twice while in Italy.)

After we went to Mount Vesuvius, we went to Pasticceria De Vivo for gelato. We tasted a few different flavours before both settling on the coconut and, you guys, this was the BEST gelato we had in all of Italy. Save it for after you go through Pompeii or hike Vesuivus for the most refreshing treat of your life.

WHAT TO WEAR TO POMPEII

I decided to include this section for any ladies planning a trip to Italy in the late summer or early autumn. Pompeii, however, is a different beast altogether. Anything you read about visiting will tell you there’s basically no shade in the ruins and that’s not an exaggeration. You will get so hot and sweaty and sticky, so you definitely want to wear something light and breathable. The roads are stone—not cobble stone, just stone—and very uneven. I wore my Birkenstocks, but I wish I had worn my Allbrids instead. The arch of my left foot was killing me by the time we left.

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