Pompeii was a large Roman city in the Italian region of Campania which was destroyed, together with Herculaneum, Stabiae, Oplontis and other communities, by the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Buried for centuries beneath tons of volcanic ash and debris, Pompeii was finally re-discovered late in the 16th century, offering an invaluable insight into the Roman world. Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors annually.
Thanks to its strategic position near the Sarno River, Pompeii was an important commercial centre, a trading hub noted for exporting goods such as olives, olive oil, wine and fish sauce (garum). Once home to approximately 12,000 people, the city boasted an assortment of baths, houses, temples, public buildings, markets, brothels, taverns and cafes, and a 20,000-seat arena. Probably originating from an amalgamation of five small towns, Pompeii’s first city plan developed in the 6th century BC when Italic people called the Oscans inhabited the area.
Over the next centuries, the city fell to the Greeks and the Samnites before becoming a Roman colony in 80 BC. Pompeii prospered until it was struck by a massive earthquake in AD 62, damaging most of its buildings. The fatal blow came upon the city in AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius violently erupted.
The powerful eruption completely smothered the cities on the foothills of Vesuvius. The volcano, which had been dormant for hundreds of years, erupted with tremendous force sending a tall mushroom cloud of rock and gas over 30 km into the sky. The cloud then collapsed and triggered a massive pyroclastic surge down the slopes of Vesuvius, killing everyone who had not yet fled. At Pompeii, most of the houses lay under a blanket of pumice and ash up to 5 metres deep. It would be some 1700 years before these Roman cities were rediscovered by archaeologists, and the extent of their preservation was extraordinary.
After its catastrophic demise, centuries of history were sealed away until 1594, when an architect stumbled across the ruins while digging a canal. However, it wasn’t until the appointment of archaeologist Guiseppe Fiorelli in 1861 that systematic excavations were undertaken. Fiorelli was responsible for making the famous plaster casts of the victims of the eruption which you can now see around the site. Of Pompeii’s original 66 hectares, 44 have now been excavated, and excavations are continuing to this day.
270 years after the discovery of Pompeii, large scale archaeological excavations have resumed in Pompeii in part of Regio V, an area of over 1,000m² that was still buried under volcanic debris. More than 200 experts and technicians are at work on the Great Pompeii Project, the €105 million conservation, maintenance and restoration program launched in 2012 and largely funded by the European Union. New structures (including a brightly coloured snack bar), colourful frescoes and mosaics of mythological figures, and historic graffiti were among the discoveries emerging from the archaeological dig. Pompeii has come a long way since UNESCO threatened Italy to take it off its World Heritage list. The threat followed several incidents that caused international alarm, including the collapse of the School of Gladiators and several walls in 2010 and 2011.
Another recent discovery was the scrawled piece of text on a wall of a house suggesting that the eruption occurred in October of AD 79, two months later than previously thought. According to Massimo Osanna, the head of the Pompeii site, the correct date of the eruption may, in fact, be 24 October. After almost two millennia, the ruins of Pompeii continue to astound us with its rich archaeological legacy. The new excavation areas are yet to open to the public.
Since the first planned excavations in the mid-18th century, Pompeii has astonished scholars and tourists alike. Its ghostly ruins make for one of the world’s most gripping and exhilarating archaeological experiences.