Pompeii: a State of Disaster then and Now

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It is a calm, quiet morning in the Roman Empire. The year is 79 AD. The busy civilians of Pompeii are carrying out their usual roles. Little did they know, this day would later be known as a day of destruction and terror. However, it would also be known as a day of preservation and learning about past cultures. The city of Pompeii is one of the most well-known examples of a city being utterly obliterated. Thus, on this fateful day, Pompeii was not only cemented in history, but also in the very ash of its neighboring volcano, and even today, there is a struggle to preserve this ancient Italian city.

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Pompeii was a Roman city over 2,000 years ago. The city saw its first settlers in the eighth century BC (“Pompeii”). Situated about five miles southeast of Mt. Vesuvius, a neighboring volcano, Pompeii became a hotspot for merchants and trade because of its proximity to the water and high population (O’Connor 42). In Pompeii, there were many different jobs and professions, such as metalsmiths, sandal makers, barbers, dentists, and bakers. The city was a hotspot for baking as well. With over 30 bakeries in town, they all grinded their own flour and made their own bread from scratch (O’Connor 43). One of Pompeii’s favorite seasonings was a popular seasoning called garum. Garum was made from fish intestines and was also used for medicine. (O’Connor 45). Pompeii was an organized city. The rich and poor lived side by side in evenly placed blocks and neighborhoods (O’Connor 51). Pompeii was a religious city. “In Pompeii there were many temples where crowds could come and pray to different Roman gods and goddesses. At home, people also kept small shrines so they could worship in private. The most powerful Roman gods were like superheroes. If ordinary humans did anything to displease them, the gods were quick to punish them” (O’Connor 34). Pompeii was bursting with life. The Roman city steadily grew over the next few centuries until it had a population of around 20,000 in the year 79 AD. After this year, the population would hit zero.

In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius finally awoke. The massive volcano shot ash and pumice 15,000 feet into the air, darkening the sky (O’Connor 10). It was a 24-hour eruption, lasting all day and into the night. When the sun arose the next day, there was no city remaining. Mt. Vesuvius had completely buried the city in 16 feet of ash (“Pompeii”). This was enough to cement all buildings and people who failed to escape the city. Of the roughly 20,000 people living in the city, over 2,000 were killed by the ash, never able to leave, while 16,000 people from all over the region became victims to the volcano (“Pompeii”).

Pompeii was not the only city to be engulfed by Mt. Vesuvius; a neighboring city called Herculaneum shared the same fate (Butler). “Both cities, located on Italy’s Neapolitan Coast, were simultaneously destroyed and preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ad 79” (Butler). Herculaneum was located on the opposite side of the mountain from Pompeii. Herculaneum was slightly closer to Vesuvius and was also demolished by the deadly blast.

Pompeii is considered a legendary location now because of its story of complete and utter terror. This story may have never been told had it not been for a man named Pliny the Younger. As O’Connor describes Pliny’s eyewitness story, he writes:

On that terrible day in 79 AD, a young man watched Vesuvius erupting. He was called Pliny the Younger. (His uncle was known as Pliny the Elder.) Pliny was a safe distance away, in a town just across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii. In a couple letters written many years later, he described everything that he saw. What Pliny wrote is the only eyewitness account of the destruction of Pompeii. (8-9)

Pompeii is still famous because of Pliny’s journals. Another major reason Pompeii is so famous and considered a legendary place is because of the recovery. Because of the city being cemented in ash, Pompeii was able to be completely recovered by excavating the ground above it (Butler).

Today, Pompeii is still a very significant part of Italian culture. It is one of Italy’s most popular tourist attractions and anyone can go visit it today and see the ancient city. Within current day Pompeii, there are molds of deceased people and even animals caught in the exact position they were in as they were buried alive (O’Connor 39). Pompeii represents not only destruction, but also preservation, as the city could be largely preserved due to the ash.

Currently however, this essential part of Italian culture is surrounded by a great deal of controversy. Pompeii is collapsing like it was 2,000 years ago (O’Connor 98). The revival efforts of the ancient city have been led by faulty management which now leads to the city having new collapses happening more and more often (Butler). The revival efforts for the city have been paused and resumed multiple times due to haphazard funding (Butler). The city is made largely out of rubble stonework, which is highly vulnerable to water damage, causing buildings to fall due to the major water buildup on the site of Pompeii (Butler).

Today, one of Pompeii’s last resorts before the city is completely gone is to look at its sister city, Herculaneum. Herculaneum was buried under ash the same way Pompeii was, but Herculaneum is thriving while Pompeii is dying due to much more careful excavating and better funding and management.

Although things have been rough in Pompeii’s past, things seem to be looking up. “In February 2013, the European Union and the Italian government launched an emergency 105-million [euro] project to reverse the decades of neglect. Dubbed the Great Pompeii Project, it focuses on draining and securing embankments, restoring masonry and decorated surfaces, and protecting buildings from weathering” (Butler). With this emergency project, Pompeii will use 105 million euros to hire professionals and figure out what needs to be done to preserve this ancient wonder. Along with the hiring costs, the money will also be used to remove all water and other harmful substances plaguing Pompeii (Butler).

Pompeii has been cemented in history and dug up for the public to see. The people of this destroyed city were hardworking, proud, and faithful. They watched in despair as their entire city and many of their friends crumbled. 2,000 years later, the ancient city is despairing, but it seems to have a recent glimmer of opportunity. Pompeii seems to be on its way to being completely preserved for many years to come.

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