How did the people of Pompeii die?

How did the people of Pompeii die? Christine Sullivan, Senior Editor at World Book Encyclopedia, discusses how the people of Pompeii died and discusses life in the ancient Roman city and the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.



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Pompeii, «pom PAY or pom PAY ee», was an ancient city in Italy that disappeared after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. For hundreds of years, the city lay buried under cinders, ashes, and stone. Since Pompeii was rediscovered in the 1700's, much has been learned about its history. Each year, excavations in the area around Pompeii bring forth additional bits of ancient art and architecture. Much also has been learned about the everyday life of the ancient Romans and their customs.


Early days. Pompeii was not a remarkable city. But it has become better known than many of the wealthier Roman towns because its ruins were so well preserved. Pompeii lay on a plateau of ancient lava near the Bay of Naples, less than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from the foot of Mount Vesuvius.


Scholars have not been able to identify Pompeii's original inhabitants. In the 500's B.C., the area came under the influence of Greek colonies along the coast. A mountain people called the Samnites occupied Pompeii in the 400's B.C. Pompeii remained a relatively unimportant village until the 200's B.C., when the town entered a prosperous period of building and expansion. Pompeii became a Roman community in 91 B.C.


Pompeii was built in the form of an oval about 2 miles (3 kilometers) around. A great wall with seven gates surrounded the city. The streets crossed each other at right angles, and were paved with blocks of lava. Ancient wheel ruts may still be seen in the pavements. In the center of the city was the open square, or forum. It was surrounded by a group of important buildings. The city had a theater, an amphitheater, a gladiators' court, many temples, and three large public baths.


The fair blue skies of Pompeii attracted many wealthy Romans. They built great villas (homes) near the Mediterranean shore, where they could enjoy the mild, sunny climate. The Pompeians built their villas with all the conveniences of a town in country surroundings. The large dwellings often consisted of two parts, the master's house and gardens, and the farmer's house with stables, barns, orchards, and fields. Most dwellings were built along the lines of a typical Roman house, with rooms grouped around the atrium (reception room). Town houses in Pompeii often had shops bordering the street. Archaeologists believe that most buildings had more than one story. The upper parts of the buildings may have been constructed partly of wood. They projected out over the street, like French and English houses of the Middle Ages.


Pompeii carried on a prosperous trade in wine, oil, and breadstuffs. It was a market for the produce of a rich countryside, and its port had wide connections in the Mediterranean area. It was also an industrial center and produced such specialties as millstones, fish sauce, perfumes, and cloth. Inhabitants of Pompeii included wealthy landowners, prosperous merchants and manufacturers, shopkeepers, artisans, and slaves.


The eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A large earthquake that probably occurred in A.D. 62 damaged Pompeii, Naples, and Herculaneum. Statues fell, columns were broken, and some buildings collapsed. Mount Vesuvius rumbled at this time. Archaeological evidence shows that some small quakes occurred in the following years, but the people stayed in the area and repaired their cities. In the summer of A.D. 79, Vesuvius erupted suddenly and with great violence. Streams of lava and mud poured into Herculaneum, and filled the town and its harbor.


Hot ashes, stones, and cinders rained down on Pompeii. The darkened air was filled with poisonous gas and fumes. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger told in a letter how he led his mother to safety through the fumes and falling stones. His uncle, the writer Pliny the Elder, commanded a fleet that rescued some people. He landed to view the eruption and died on the shore.


The remains of about 2,000 victims out of a population of some 20,000 have been found in excavations at Pompeii. Some of the victims were trapped in their homes and killed by hot ashes. Others breathed the poisonous fumes and died as they fled. Archaeologists find the shells (molds) of the bodies preserved in the hardened ash. By carefully pouring plaster into the shells, they can make detailed copies of the individuals, even to the expressions of agony on their faces.


Rather than the lava, showers of hot, wet ashes and cinders sprayed Pompeii. When these ashes and cinders dried, they covered and sealed up much of the city. Only the tops of walls and columns emerged above the waste. Survivors dug out valuables they had left behind and even took statues, marbles, and bronzes. But later eruptions and erosion erased the last traces of the city.


The eruption of Vesuvius destroyed not only Pompeii but also the nearby cities of Stabiae and Herculaneum. It changed the entire geography of the Campania region around Pompeii. It turned the Sarno River back from its course and raised the sea beach so there was no way of locating Pompeii, which lay beneath the ash deposits for almost 1,700 years.


Excavations. The buried city was not completely forgotten. Peasants living in the area searched for hidden treasure. They did not excavate openly, but they tunneled into the deposits and reached houses. In the 1500's, workers digging an underground tunnel to change the course of the Sarno River discovered parts of the amphitheater, forum, and a temple. But no one paid much attention to these finds.


In 1748, a peasant was digging in a vineyard and struck a buried wall. His discovery came to the attention of authorities in Italy, and soon people began to carry on excavations in the region. At first, the diggers hoped to recover objects to enrich the museums of the kings of the Two Sicilies. For about 100 years, the search concentrated on important buildings, such as the forum, the amphitheater, the theater, and the larger houses.


After 1860, Giuseppe Fiorelli served as director of the excavations. He instituted the first systematic uncovering of the whole city block by block. In the early 1900's, archaeologists decided not to remove treasures from the city, but to keep them and to restore buildings as much as possible to their original condition. The Italian government has given money for this work.


Remains. About three-fourths of Pompeii has now been uncovered. Visitors may see buildings as they stood almost 2,000 years ago. They may walk in and out of houses and up and down narrow lanes, just as the Pompeians did. They may see the ruins of the ancient public square, with many of the surrounding buildings. They may see the old Temple of Jupiter, which was an ancient ruin at the time of the eruption. They may wander through the old Roman public halls, and admire the temples of Apollo and Fortuna Augusta.


Workers have uncovered a large part of the city wall. The disaster occurred during a local election campaign. Election slogans can still be seen on the walls of houses. Not many valuables have been found. Historians believe that the Pompeians carried many of their possessions with them as they fled from the city. Workers have found bracelets, earrings, gems, and coins. They have also discovered household statues of silver, bronze, and ivory, as well as utensils of metal and glass. Many domestic treasures came to light near Boscoreale, a town near Naples. A large number of Pompeian objects are on display in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples, about 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Pompeii.




Erich S. Gruen, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, University of California, Berkeley.


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