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Pompeii lies about 22 kilometers southeast of Naples (14 miles), and was both destroyed and preserved by Vesuvius. The city itself dates back to at least the 6th century B.C.E. It had allied with Greece for protection against the Etruscans, then switched loyalties, and eventually fell under Roman domination in 80 B.C.E.

In its time, Pompeii was the vacation get-away and was celebrated as a place for self-indulgence. According to Fodor’s: “In the town's grandest villas as well as its rowdiest lupanari (brothels), murals still reveal a worship of hedonism. Images of satyrs, bacchantes, hermaphrodites, and acrobatic couples indulge in hanky-panky.”

The city was buried under 6 to 7 meters of lava stones (19 to 23 feet). Twenty thousand Pompeiians died, mostly from suffocation. The stones, as we shall see, just simply covered the people, smothering them immediately. Charles III, King of Spain who also ruled Naples and Sicily, began a rediscovery of Pompeii in 1748, but he kept the site a secret by making lateral excavations, tunneling into and stealing from the city. In 1860, when Italy began to become the unified country it is today, serious official excavations began.

The walls stretched 3 km (almost 2 miles), and the city covered an area of 161 acres.

A typical street scene.

The streets show the most unusual constructions - that of what must have been stepping-stones. It could be assumed that in times of heavy downpours, using those stones would keep your feet relatively dry - something we could learn from today. It just seems difficult to understand how horses, especially when pulling carts or chariots, could have navigated through the spaces between the stones. But it seems as though every street had such construction, so it must have worked.

You will also notice something we don't have too much of in South Florida where I am presently residing, and that is sewers. Two thousand years later and our developers still do not get the picture. Of course here in Miami we are told that rainwater will just evaporate, or get soaked up in adjacent swales. It does not happen; we flood! Of course it is cheaper. Seems strange but true: the Roman province was more "civilized" than some of the 21st century urban areas. Notice, also, from above illustrations, for those of you living in communities without them - there are curbs and sidewalks.

The forum from the south. A series of buildings surrounded a central open space. As with most such Roman areas, the site was the economic, political, and religious heart of the city.

One of two flanking colonnades in the distance.

The two story structure features a Doric order on the first level, and an Ionic on the second. These columns defined the raised floor of the central forum, an area measuring 32 by 142 meters (105 x 466 feet), which was paved with travertine.

The “basilica” area, but actually not a church as we know basilicas today, but originally meeting places – this one was the financial center of the city.

Another view in the financial complex. The building dates back to the end of the second century B.C.E. and is located at the southwest corner of the forum. It measures 69 by 26 meters externally (226 x 86 feet), with an internal enclosure of 46 by 13 meters (150 x 42 feet). There was a second story.

Now for a brief explanation of the development of the Roman basilica. In Grecian cities there were centralized public open spaces (there is a reconstructed one at the foot of the Acropolis), which would contain markets. A sheltered colonnade protected merchants from inclement weather; shoppers, too. Roman designs evolved into a covered peristyle, which was a single or double row of columns surrounding a building space. This space could be an open court, internal garden, or a fully roofed structure. The Parthenon is a major example of such a design. Well, the Romans built such structures, which at some point became known as basilicas. The origin of the word derives from “royal” or “king,” indicating that early structures were for chieftains holding court – usually in an apse-like end of the rectangular structure.

Basilicas, a term not employed when describing Grecian temples, were used by the Romans as halls of justice and commercial exchanges. This site did not have apse ends. Trajan’s Forum, in Rome, did contain a basilica with an apse at both short sides.

It is this apse aspect that the form of early Christian churches used to contain the altar. In reality, once Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was an immediate need for congregational enclosures, so the earliest churches merely took over existing Roman constructions – the basilicas.

A capital, which once supported the roof of the basilica. It is of carved tufa, described as “Pompeiian Ionic” because of certain peculiarities in its design. Independent research can compare this particular design with earlier Grecian and later Roman developments.

House of Paquius Proculus, showing an impluvium (basin), placed beneath a roof opening to catch rainwater. Made of lead, they and the vertical pipes, look new, yet are better configured than present day ones. It was sworn to me by a caretaker that they are original.

The baths of Stabian, the oldest in Pompeii, dating back to the 4th century B.C.E. There were separate sections for men and women.

Floor elevated on bricks, indicating a bath area. Fires were set near such elevated sections, and bellows were used to blow heat under the floor, in what was a sauna. This is part of the Baths of Stabian complex.

The curved walls indicate a barrel vault in the bath area, thus keeping the room column-free, and completely plastered, with no wooden roof construction.

An oculus within the Pompeiian bath structure, for light and air; the climate is rather mild.

The Thermopolium of Asellina, or in plain words, a bar belonging to Asellina, probably serving both hot and cold liquid refreshments. There has been a suggestion that this building housed a brothel. At times the wall frescoes or mosaics would hint at the activities of a particular room or building. Actually, this building’s façade bears inscriptions reminding the visitor of the support given by the owner and waitresses to candidates in a local election. Politics as usual.

Another bar. This time we can see, through crumbling construction, just how liquids were contained. Notice the clay urn on the right.

Some call this a fountain. It sits in a street and conceivably might have been used for washing fruits and vegetables (although Roman markets usually were set apart from normal street traffic, and had their own water supply). I would doubt it was used for washing clothes (again there would have been separate facilities for such). My personal thought is that it was a horse trough. The raised sculpture has a pipe projecting out of its mouth, through which water poured. It might simply have supplied water for anyone carrying a bucket. There is evidence in the city of a water tank, which was supplied by an aqueduct entering the city at the Vesuvius Gate, the highest point in Pompeii. Water was then piped from the height of the water tank to local houses and fountains through small lead pipes, just as it is in many communities throughout the world today.

The approach to the stadium (for whatever reason it is often referred to as an “amphitheatre,” though it is not a semicircle, but a fully contained oval, and was clearly marked as being a stadium in situ).

The beautifully preserved staircase to the top (assuming it has not been recreated).

Entrance to the stadium.

The very top of the stadium.

The first of two views of the arena. There were between 12,000 and 20,000 seats, depending on which source you read.

The second view of the arena, or ground.

Villa of the Mysteries is a not so typical example of a luxurious suburban house. An artificial embankment shown under reconstruction contains the "cryptoporticus," used as a cellar. What makes this house so unusual are the frescoes inside, which indicate this was a place of initiation in the cult of the Greek god Dionysus, known in Italy as Bacchus.

Courtyard of the villa

Brick oven, fire below, food prepared on top.

Roof construction, newly restored, but authentic, and exactly as we do it today.

Interior of the Villa of Mysteries

There are many things to see in the Villa of the Mysteries, but what must not be missed are the scenes painted on the walls of this room from which the villa's name was derived. Most agree that this is one of the greatest masterpieces of antiquity. With a Pompeian red background, there are 29 life-size figures painted in chronological order, much like a modern comic strip. Most authorities believe the fresco is a record of a pagan rite of passage or entrance into the cult of Dionysus, god of wine and debauchery (His Roman name was Bacchus). The average person in the first century would not have been familiar with the secrets (or "mysteries") involved in the initiation ceremony (called Bacchanalia); that was reserved for those who were members of the cult. This is the first panel. The ceremony begins with a naked boy, perhaps representing the divine, androgynous Dionysus. The boy reads from a scroll with three participants in attendance. The initiate is shown carrying a tray of sacramental cake.

Possibly an ancient olive press

Finely cut details, indicating an advanced society.

A cistern, with opening for water usage placed higher than the atrium’s floor.

Walls often of brick, plastered or stuccoed to simulate stone, with incised joint simulations. This was common in smaller cities, as opposed to the realistic grandeur of Rome, where real stones were used.

A fluted column, revealing what went on in cities outside of Rome. Today we would call this a “faux” column, in that it is really made of brick, as opposed to stone or marble, and covered with stucco, which was grooved. Small cities and colonies often were not as affluent as the mother country or, in this case, Rome, so inexpensive methods substituted for the real thing.

The garbage thrown into this wall construction (note the urn) shows the makings of aggregate concrete; anything of masonry – brick, stone, gravel, or clay – can be used as aggregate.

This wall shows corner construction resembling the technique of using quoins as reinforcement at those corners. Here, instead of large stones such as were seen at Akrotiri, we have alternating regular-sized bricks with two layers of thin bricks. There was a period in time when archaeologists were able (or at least they thought they were) to date Roman construction by the patterning of these corners, or of wall construction, in general – by the layering. At some point, (perhaps you can research the magazine Archaeology), a mixture of elements occurred in one building, seemingly done at the same time. This blew the whole theory out of the water.

But an added note to this image: most of the wall is composed of square brick ends laid on a 45 degree pattern. What makes this more interesting is that Mayan ruins in the Yucatan do exactly the same thing, but with square stones.

A wood lintel supporting stonework above. Normally, we think of stone piers supporting wood beams. Here the absolute opposite occurs and defies normal thinking. Yet the proof is quite evident, in that this particular lintel has been in place for close to or a little more than 2,000 years; wormholes attest to its age.

Remains of an arched vault.

An example of the intense heat generated by the volcanic explosion – a seared door.

The plaster casts are clear indications of just how the people died. The whole notion of making casts came about when, in the process of digging, voids were discovered. Someone cleverly got the idea of pouring plaster into those voids, and what you see is the result. Startling and frightening.

People trying to protect their mouths and noses from suffocating sulphuric fumes and the lava stones, gasping for breath. Other figures are on the site that were completely surrounded by the stones, and couldn't even fall; their dying moments caught as if in suspended animation.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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