Pompeii and Herculaneum

Naples Travel Blog

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Another train journey,this time from Rome to Naples. We then get picked up by Bus to transfer us down the coast to our Hotel in Sorrento. Dumping our bags we head straight back out on the branch line train to the stop right outside Pompeii.

On August 24, 79 Mount Vesuvius literally blew its top, spewing tons of molten ash, pumice and sulfuric gas miles into the atmosphere. A "firestorm" of poisonous vapors and molten debris engulfed the surrounding area suffocating the inhabitants of the neighboring Roman resort cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

Tons of falling debris filled the streets until nothing remained to be seen of the once thriving communities.

The cities remained buried and undiscovered for almost 1700 years until excavation began in 1748. These excavations still continue today and provide insight into life during the Roman Empire.

It's a place I've always wanted to see having heard so much about it over the years. It's bigger than I expected and after a guided tour pointing out the places of interest we are free to wander by ourselves. Human nature being what it is one of the most visited places is the brothel. Complete with a still visible picture "menu" which causes much hilarity and giggling amonst a party of French school girls who enter the building behind me.

Pompeii, unlike the other towns in Campania founded for the most part by Greek colonists, probably around the 9-8th century B.

C., even if the evidence now available does not go back beyond the 6th century. The town developed on lava terracing formed many centuries earlier. It constituted an important natural defence against the threat of invasion by neighbouring peoples. At the same time the volcanic nature of the land meant the territory of the Sarno valley was particularly fertile, thereby allowing for the rapid development of the agricultural economy.

Rome began its gradual advance towards southern Italy and had started to overcome the resistance of the Italic peoples. As a consequence  the Samnites were forced to surrender to the Eternal City, though only after three long and bitter wars. Pompeii also ended up under Roman dominion, becoming an "associate", a status which allowed for the maintenance of a relative local autonomy.

From that time on its history was closely connected with that of the Eternal City and only on the occasion of the social war waged by the Italic peoples in a final attempt to defend their freedom, did it ally itself with the insurrectionary movement (91 B.C.). In 89 B.C., however, it was besieged by Sulla, taken by storm and thus brought back under the aegis of Rome. In 80 B.C. it became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompei. As in the past, Pompeii continued to expand and develop in every sector, in the economic field in particular, greatly helped by its fertile hinterland and its advantageous position. 

However, the life and splendour of Pompeii was destined to come to an end. The first inklings of the tragedy were felt around 62 A.

D., when a violent earthquake devastated the city and the surrounding countryside. It was no mean feat to recover from this blow. The least well-off class suffered the most serious consequences, having seen their houses destroyed. Most of the public and private buildings were still at the strengthening and restoration stage when Vesuvius became active, and in the space of a few hours sowed death and destruction on the city. 

Are next stop was due to be a walk in the National Park of the volcano that caused all the devastation. When we get to the carpark however we are told that the Park Rangers are on strike and that no one is allowed into the park. We hang around for a while and seeing no signs of movement we have a quick vote and opt to head down to Herculaneum.

Herculaneum was originally rediscovered when a well was being dug in the early 18th Century at a depth of 50 – 60 feet below the modern surface.

Initially a series of ‘robber’ shafts and tunnels were dug to strip the site of any saleable valuables. However, between 1749 to 1765 Herculaneum was explored on a more scientific basis for the Bourbon Kings of Naples and the Two Sicilies, initially under the supervision of Rocco Gioacchino Alcubierre and then his assistant Carlo Weber. A basic plan of the town was mapped out and much of the portable remains removed but eventually these tunnels collapsed and were closed down. The modern towns of Resina and Portici grew up over the site and knowledge of where the entrances to the tunnels were was lost to the scientific community.

In the 20th Century, archaeological excavations re-commenced on a more modern and scientific basis fully uncovering a small section of the town but it was found that the earlier tunnelling had damaged the structure of much of the surviving buildings.

The site is also suffering from exposure to the elements and the periodic earth tremors, so there is a constant battle to try and preserve the remains.

Recent archaeological work at the site has rediscovered potentially one of the greatest treasure houses of contemporary Roman knowledge. The Villa of the Papyri was initially thought to contain unreadable charred scrolls, fused into solid lumps when it was originally excavated in the 18th Century. It was found that using various techniques some of the scrolls could be eased open and at least part of their contents read. Work is ongoing work and it is now known that the Villa was owned by a relative of Julius Caesar so who knows what new information may eventually come to light.

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photo by: Joost1976