Pompeii has grown famous for its well-kept preservation of Roman life. The city was an average Roman town that thrived in the empire. It was known for its fertility due to the volcano, Vesuvius, providing rich soil for any farmers in the area. A nearby river and bay allowed for easy exportation and for foreign merchants to come to the city to sell their goods from anywhere in and out of the empire. No one expected for Vesuvius to be the end of their city or their lives. Pompeii was a normal Roman town with a rich wine and agriculture economy that soon fell to the wrath of Vesuvius that gave them their livelihoods.
Pompeii was settled near the Bay of Naples in Italy and above the mouth of the Sarno River. The city itself was quite large, being 66 hectares in total. Pompeii was only seen as a small, yet popular provincial Roman located in Campania at the time. The city was connected by a road which made a large network of other town, cities, farms, and estates. About six miles south of Vesuvius which stood 4,203 feet tall, or maybe even taller before its first eruption. The volcano made the land on and around it extremely fertile. Farmers could produce three to four crops a year which included spelt, wheat, millet, fruits, vegetables, and most popularly were olives. The slopes of Vesuvius were very populated and farmed for this very reason.
Pompeii was said to be built by the Oscan people, then the Greeks, Etruscans, and the Samnites held the city, before ending up in Roman hands in 290 BCE. Stories of the city also say that Pompeii was built before the Trojan War at the time of Hercule’s travels. This is not based on archaeological evidence, but it is based on ancient historians or legend. There was evidence of some habitation of Pompeii even before the time of the Trojan War, such as old foundations under certain houses from the second and third centuries BCE and third-century black-glaze Campanian pottery. A Neolithic stone axe, Bronze Age pottery fragments from the first half of the second millennium, pottery, and bronze from the eighth and ninth centuries BCE, and Iron Age cemeteries were found around the Pompeii area. It is also thought that there was a small, rural settlement in the area before the city proper, around the sixth century BCE. Both the Greeks and Etruscans were interested in the land of Pompeii because of its strategic and agricultural importance. There was evidence of both groups in the city around the sixth century BCE due to pottery from both groups being found in the Doric Temple and the Temple of Apollo dating back to that time.
Some theories have said that Pompeii could have been a Greek settlement that traded with the Etruscans, and they might have lived nearby, or at least allies of the Etruscans did. One specific theory that has been debated was the idea of Altstadt, also known as the “old city”. In 1913 Francis Haverfield hypothesized that Pompeii started to be built in the southwest corner, and then expanded. This was because the southwest corner had an irregular street and housing, so it was thought it was the first part settled. The idea was highly debated, and it was not until 1995 when the University of Rome started to excavate parts of the so called Altstadt and found no major building in the area until the second century BCE. Another attempt to find Altstadt was made by Paul Arthur who also failed to find it. He found pottery from the fourth and sixth centuries BCE and evidence that the Forum had not started before the second century BCE. The idea of Altstadt does originally sound like a good idea, but archaeologists are unable to come up with enough evidence for it to be true.
Ten miles away from Pompeii and at the base of Vesuvius lied the town of Herculaneum. It was situated on a lava plateau overlooking the sea and between two streams on both sides. It was a Roman holiday resort that was made in the fourth century BCE. The town was full of luxury villas and one is even believed to be owned by Emperor Caligula. The town is much overlooked today, even though excavations were started in Herculaneum even before those in Pompeii. The town was only around 20 hectares compared to Pompeii’s 66, which was still a large town, but tiny in Pompeii’s shadow. Most people overlook Herculaneum either due to its size or less important purpose, but it still deserves to be recognized for its historical value.
Pompeii was believed to be a diverse and dense Roman city. Though it is impossible to find Pompeii’s official population size, estimates have been made anywhere from sixty-four hundred people to thirty thousand people. These have been made with multiple factors in mind, anywhere from the seats in the amphitheater to the excavated rooms in the city. Most historians do accept the populations from eight thousand to twelve thousand people. The number of residents in Pompeii and Herculaneum quickly changed because merchants, foreign traders, and visitors came in and out of the city on a daily basis. Due to Pompeii being located on the River Sarno, it would be reasonable for people from all over to come to the city, so it is believed that it was diverse. A majority of inscriptions in the city were made in Latin, yet some were written in Greek and Oscan, suggesting indigenous people still lived within the city’s walls. Greek names were also found in financial records, and sometimes a rare Hebrew or Jewish names such as Martha would be found too. Not only the names, but wall paintings such as the ‘Judgment of Solomon’ suggested that Jewish people lived in Pompeii. This was uncommon due to Rome’s dislike of monotheistic people, yet this port city had its gates open to everyone during this time. Pompeii might have been less diverse than originally thought. It has never been completely confirmed that the city was diverse, it was theorized because of its location and inscriptions. After time and research archaeologists are being led to believe that Pompeii was not as diverse as they previously thought. It has not been totally confirmed, but the results are not conclusive.
Women in Pompeii were controlled by their father, husband, or their nearest male relative and they had no voice in politics or resources of their own. They had no political rights, such as the right to hold political office or vote. By the Augustan period a few women owned property and managed their own affairs, but a male guardian had to authorize any transaction. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum had women that owned property, became priestesses, constructed their own buildings and tombs, and gave their support to male electoral candidates. Evidence of women having business agreements with men had been found in Pompeii. Fourteen women were found in the archive of Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, a famous banker who lived in Pompeii, and there were records of him taking a commission for selling goods at auctions for a woman named Umbricia Januaria. Graffiti in a tavern tells of a woman named Faustilla who loaned two denarii to a person, and charged a fee of one. Many other instances of women borrowing and lending money were found within Pompeii and Herculaneum, which suggested that some elite women could function by themselves.
One specific woman named Eumachia was one of the most famous women in Pompeii and was a priestess of possibly Ceres. She grew up in a wealthy family and it was believed that her father sold Pompeian wine. She was married into another wealthy family and her husband or son held public office of duumvir in 3 CE. The largest building in Pompeii’s Forum was built by her with her funds which gave her high influence among the elite. She dedicated the building to Augustan Concord and Piety, which emphasized her loyalty to Rome. She built tombs for herself and for her family at her expense, which became the largest tomb in Pompeii. This one woman was such an influence on the city and proved what women could still do in the social constraints of ancient Rome.
The forum was Pompeii’s main, basic urban unit that the city grew around. Pompeii’s forum was somewhat longer and narrower than a normal forum design. This forum connected the Temple of Apollo and the Triangular Forum with the Doric Temple. The Temple of Apollo was purposefully placed across from the forum, and it would have had a screen wall to separate the forum and temple. This was a Greek tradition which symbolized keeping the sacred and secular parts of life visible, but yet still separate from each other. There is little evidence that suggests there were any games held in the forum like most other forums, but mostly parades and other large spectacles were held there.
The market was one of the busiest sections of the form, and it sold everything within the Roman Empire and beyond. Evidence of India ivory, Spanish olive oil, and furniture from either Capua or Naples has been found in the marketplace. Many local sellers such as farmers and vintners from the suburbs also sold their wares at the market. Olives, grain, and wine, specifically Pompeiana and Vesuviana vine, were the primary products of Pompeii, being sold and exported. Pompeii was also known for their olive groves and pressing facilities, along with their granaries. The main greenery was across from the Macellum, the main market building, which sold cereals to locals and bakeries. The city had about thirty bakeries all around due to the entire population needing a bread ration.
Another major industry was garum, fish sauce. Because Pompeii was so close to the River Sarno, fish was an easy material to get. It was sold live, as salted fillets, and many were bought for the use of making garum. This sauce was made of sardine entrails mixed with grounded up fish parts and roe. The mixture was left to ferment for six weeks and the oil was drained. What was left was sold as garum. Besides food, another major industry in Pompeii was wool.
Eumachia was the name of the building of the headquarters of the Fuller’s Guild, which was the east side of the forum. The fullers were in charge of washing, dying, and the manufacturing of wool cloth. Any fulling and fabric making would happen in different laundries throughout the city. The building was named after the priestess Eumachia and was dedicated to Augustan Concord and Piety. There were other guilds in Pompeii such as the carpenters, fruit sellers, plumbers, wheelwrights, and goldsmiths, but they were not as powerful as the fullers. Still, Pompeii’s economy was always diverse and able to thrive.
The government of Pompeii was the same structure as another Roman city. Two duovirs were in charge of justice and government for the city and two aediles were in charge of public and religious structures and services. These four only stayed in office for one year, while one hundred decurionum served for life in the municipal council. It was said to be difficult to get into Pompeii’s city council. Even harder than getting into the Roman Senate according to Cicero. Graffiti around city tells of people supporting candidates such as one graffiti saying “Vesonius Primus urges the election of Gnaeus Helvius as aedile, a man worthy of public office”. There were about three thousand instances political propaganda and placards found within Pompeii, and around half of those were from the election of March 79 CE.
Religion was main component in Pompeian and Roman life. Roman monotheism was the most common religion of the time, and they adopted other monotheistic gods such as Greek and Egyptian gods. Thousands of images of gods and goddesses have been found in Pompeii and more have yet to be discovered. People saw the gods as divine beings who would help them if they worshipped the gods, so if the Pompeians worshiped their gods nothing bad would happen to the city. Monotheism and atheism was something many people could not comprehend in the Roman world, but there was evidence of Jewish people in Pompeii such as women with the name Martha and wall paintings. Evidence of Christianity was found when an anagram of PATER NOSTER, meaning “Our Father” in Latin was found within Pompeii.
Temples and cults throughout the city were dedicated to various deities such as Isis, Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Ceres, Neptune, and Hercules. Isis was originally an Egyptian goddess that the Romans took in to worship around the second century BCE. She was very popular among the Romans and in Pompeii she had a large temple and cult dedicated to her. Isis was considered the mother goddess of Egyptian mythology, and the protector of sailors. The main aspect of her myth was that she resurrected her husband, Osiris, from the dead and the Romans were interested in this part of her. The temple was one of the most well preserved buildings in Pompeii, and was only lightly looted when found for excavations. People claim that the final sacrifice stilled burned as the first pumice started to fall on Pompeii.
The pumice fell from a local volcano called Vesuvius. The volcano was about four thousand feet tall and had two craters. It was a part of a whole chain of volcanoes that stretched from the north of Rome to the south of Italy. It is unclear if the Pompeians knew that Vesuvius was a volcano. Vesuvius was not included in ancient lists of volcanoes, but it was described as having “crates of fire” at Vesuvius by Strabo. The volcano had not erupted for about seven hundred years, so locals grew their crops on the fertile side of it which was fully lush before its 79 CE eruption. In fall of 79 CE at around eleven p.m. Vesuvius let out a minor explosion and let fine ash fall east of it. Two hours later the main eruption occurred, a column of pumice rose ten to twenty miles above the volcano and plunged the surrounding area into darkness. It took five hours until pumice and rock fragments began to rain down on the city. Soon, roofs collapsed and it became hard to move through streets. After this, another column of hot gas and pumice collapsed in surges on the surrounding people in the south and west. The first surge covered Herculaneum in ten feet of hot ash and second surge added another five feet an hour later. A third surge at six-thirty a.m. touched some of Pompeii’s Herculaneum gate, but did not break the walls of the city. Only hours later three large surges in a row hit Pompeii. The fourth surge reached temperatures up to two hundred and twelve to seven hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit and the next two buried the city in two feet of ash to the south and six feet to the north. The final, sixth surge reached a town called Misenum.
Deaths from the surges mostly came from structures falling on top of people when the ash made buildings collapse. Some deaths came from the fourth surge, asphyxiation, or in some cases thermal shock. Most bodies at Pompeii were found in groups, either hiding inside or running away outside, but it is believed that most Pompeians escaped. A theory suggests that there were many people who died in the countryside, but most evidence for this theory has probably been destroyed.
The town of Herculaneum suffered fewer deaths than Pompeii. A large portion of the population was believed to have gotten away, until in 1982 over three hundred victims were found in waterfront chambers. These chambers were assumed to be boat houses and there were around fifteen to forty people per chamber. They died during the first surge by either asphyxiation or severe burns.
Soon, word of the eruption spread and Emperor Titus sent immediate aid to the area around Vesuvius. A group of senators was appointed to hopefully rebuild the city and any property of people who died without a will was donated to any relief efforts. Most survivors went to Nola, Naples, Capua, and Sorrento and towns were given benefits as a reward for taking survivors in. It is unclear if Pompeians salvaged after the eruption, some structures were event left uncovered due to the uneven ash. Post-eruption disruption was evident throughout Pompeii, this could either be from salvaging or treasure hunting later on. Herculaneum was too heavily covered to salvage. After many years of Pompeii and Herculaneum sitting, many aspects of life were found in the present day, but this preservation was imperfect. Food such as eggs, fish, and fruit were all mostly still intact when found. Bodies were killed when trying to run away and had eighteen hours to do so. Only over one thousand bodies were found in Pompeii and around three hundred were found in Herculaneum. Buildings were torn apart by ash and age and any organic material that had been found was very rare and small. Later treasure hunting and scavenging revealed tunnels under the city. It is uncertain if these tunnels were made before or after the eruption. Early excavations of Pompeii were poorly excavated and recorded and sometimes artifacts were sold or just thrown out if seen as unimportant. All of these factors lead up to making this profound discovery flawed, but it still gives a clear window to daily Roman life.
The city of Pompeii was not meant to be something the Romans intended to be one large part of their legacy, but that is what it became. A rich Roman culture was embedded into the town and many people lived their normal lives until it was too late. No one could have seen the eruption coming. The normal city became a plethora of archeological finds due to a gruesome event that left many dead or displaced. Now, the area around Vesuvius has been repopulated and that volcano has erupted a few times after its eruption in 79 CE. It is considered dominate now, but if it erupts again it will echo what happened to Pompeii thousands of years ago and affect up to three million people.
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