23 April 2008

Walking in the Footsteps of Ancient Romans

Our primary reason for going to Naples was to visit Pompeii...

An Ancient Roman city which has remained virtually the same since the 24th of August in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried both Pompeii and the nearby community of Herculean, and everyone in them, beneath several meters of ash and pumice.

There is evidence that in the first few years after the eruption people attempted to dig down and retrieve the treasures that were buried. But in time, the fact the city ever existed was virtually forgotten except for the occasional, obscure reference found in Roman documents.

The towns were accidentally rediscovered in 1599 by Domenico Fontana, an engineer in charge of a crew digging a new course for the Sarno River. However, serious excavations did not begin until 1748 when Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples, started the process to excavate both cities.

What they found was the most complete view of every-day Ancient Roman life every discovered. What makes Pompeii different from all the other Roman sites is that it was preserved in its entirety -- from the grand public buildings to the homes of the people at all levels to the bakeries and the shops and even a brothel.

At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had a population of approximately 25,000 people. It was a thriving community. And it's excavation allows visitors to truly experience "walking in the footsteps of the Ancient Romans."

At the center of all Roman cities lies the Forum, the market place and gathering point for the citizens.

Looking past the Forum, we caught our first view of Mount Vesuvius from Pompeii. I have to admit, it gave me a bit of a shudder. Especially as shortly before our visit I watched a documentary on Pompeii which said the volcano was due for another massive eruption! Fortunately scientists are now able to predict when a volcanic eruption might be imminent.

The Forum Baths, one of a few different public baths in the city, stands nearby.

And we were charmed by the House of the Small Fountain.

So named, of course, due to the small fountain in its inner courtyard.

Near the arena is the Large Palaestra, where spectators could walk before, during and after arena events, enjoying the beauty of the gardens.

We were fortunate to visit Pompeii before the major tourist season arrived and on a rainy weekend in which the locals chose to stay home because the city was remarkably clear of masses of people.

The only exception was the long line of people eagerly waiting to pass through the brothel and view the "art" frescoed on the walls to "inspire" the clientele. We left it to our imagination, however, as we had no interest in joining the masses to shuffle slowly past pornography. Especially when we had already seen the originals in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

We also enjoyed seeing the other small slices of life. The "Beware of Dog" signs of today?

A dog mosaic on your doorstep would be a much "classier" version.

And the Ancient Romans must have had well-developed thighs and buttocks from all of the "step aerobics" they performed just crossing the street.

The curbs are much higher than the street and stepping stones are strategically placed to allow chariots and wagons to pass. Their purpose was so pedestrians could walk above the muck of the street. (Note: the streets, curbs and stepping stones WERE NOT designed for modern prams and strollers. If you take your young children, do yourselves a favor and use one of those backpack contraptions. You'll have an easier time as a result.)

However, the most haunting sights are the body casts seen throughout Pompeii. They are the reminders of the people who once lived here and how they died.

As workers excavated the city, they would periodically discover empty spaces in the ash. It wasn't until the 1860's that someone realized these holes were the spaces left by bodies, long since decomposed. From then on when one of these spaces was discovered, it would be filled with plaster to create a cast of the person who had died in that place so many centuries before.

Today Pompeii is the most visited site in Italy with an estimated 2.5 million visitors every year. However, all of those visitors, the years, the weather, air pollution and the early, clumsy, methods of excavation have all taken a toll. Although the volcanic ash almost perfectly preserved the buildings, mosaics and vibrant colors, the site is deteriorating rapidly. Approximately 1/3 of the city remains buried, but excavations have stopped until better methods of conservation can be found. Many of the buildings that were once opened to the public have been closed and there have even been discussion of reburying parts of the city in order to protect it.

It has been estimated that it would take $335 million (US dollars) to adequately conserve the site, but in cash-strapped Italy that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

We were just happy to have had the opportunity to see it. We hope to go back one day because the site is so enormous that we only had time to see a part of it. In our opinion, it is one of the top "Must See's" in all of Europe.

1 comment:

Expat Traveler said...

how cool! I love that photo of the pink fountain.