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Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time

July 20, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

Carlino's_Pompeii_Mount_VesuviusJust a short distance from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was once a thriving Roman village with thousands of residents, many of them wealthy. Like its neighbor, Herculaneum, it drew visitors to its pleasant climate and beautiful baths. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., blanketing the city under as much as 8 feet of ash in a matter of minutes, the historian Pliny the Younger witnessed the destruction. Although he didn’t know it, the author documented not only the cataclysmic end of Pompeii as a living city but the birth of one of the world’s most valuable archaeological resources. Since its rediscovery in the early 1600s, no site has been more closely scrutinized, yet Pompeii still holds mysteries that fascinate all who see or read about it.

The ash that flowed down Vesuvius’ slopes to engulf Pompeii was a tragedy in its time, but the blanket of debris preserved the city almost perfectly, freezing it in time and giving modern people an unprecedented look at Roman lives. Unlike other sites that offer only a few fragments or ruined buildings, Pompeii shows the evidence of how people truly lived – how they decorated their homes, what they liked to eat and even how they spent their leisure time.

Pompeii was probably a vacation spot or resort town for wealthy Romans, archaeologists believe. The town had a busy port, but it also had a big entertainment industry, much as vacation destinations do today. The city of 20,000 had an amphitheater, a gymnasium, multiple bath houses and a well-developed plumbing system that undoubtedly made life in Pompeii especially pleasant. With more entertainment venues than temples, Pompeii was apparently where people went to get away from the throngs in Rome and enjoy themselves.

To the Romans, baths were more than a way to stay clean and comfortable; they were a social event. Pompeii’s baths had running water, heated floors and alcoves for dining that suggested people spent much of their days in the bath house. One building, the Suburban Baths – so named because they’re farther from the large villas and closer to middle-class insulae – is particularly well preserved. The art on its walls was lively and, to modern standards, shocking, but the Romans and Pompeiians who went there probably didn’t find the nudity surprising. The placement of the frescoes suggests that the Pompeiians may have used the images to remember where they left their belongings; each locker-like area had a different ribald image.

Another major feature of the city was its large amphitheater. Romans loved live entertainment and plays, so archaeologists weren’t surprised to find a theater. The fact that the building held so many people, though, suggests plenty of tourists who wanted to catch a show while they were in town. During Pompeii’s last few years, the amphitheater may have been closed by the authorities because of a riot during a gladiatorial exhibition. Graffiti nearby shows a Campanian or Pompeiian fighter defeating a rival with the caption, “Campanians died too when they beat Nucerians.”

Graffiti is everywhere in Pompeii, and much of it still resonates with modern visitors. “Celadus makes all the girls sigh,” for example, doesn’t look too different from what might appear in a present-day locker room. Other graffiti statements preserved for all time include insults, declarations of love and friendship, and racy advertisements for brothels. One villa that historians dubbed the House of the Moralist for its virtuous graffiti, reminds visitors to “postpone your tiresome quarrels if you can, or leave and take them home with you.”

Some of the most eloquent images from Pompeii come not from what its citizens wrote but from how they lived. Pots of rouge still contain traces of red dyes used to make lips and cheeks rosy. Tiled hearths still had bread in ovens, giving bakers a glimpse of how the Romans ate. One baker’s household still has a portrait of a husband and wife on its walls, evidence of the pride the proprietors took in their work. He holds a scroll and she touches a stylus to her lips in the image.

Pompeii was once a pleasure garden for the wealthy and a home for the prosperous middle-class merchants who served them. Today, it’s a reminder that we aren’t far removed from the past.

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