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In the year 79, Mount Vesuvius, a volcano located east of the modern-day city of Naples, erupted.
Vesuvius had erupted before, but this eruption was different. It ejected an enormous amount of ash which completely buried several towns and cities below the mountain.
Almost 2,000 years later, the largest of those cities, Pompeii, was rediscovered, and what archeologists found revolutionized our understanding of the ancient world.
Learn more about the destruction and rediscovery of Pompeii on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I’ve been asked why I talk so much about ancient Rome. There are two answers to that question.
The first is that Rome had an inordinate amount of influence on the western world, which can still be felt today. Everything from our alphabet or the months of the year all come from Rome.
Perhaps more importantly, we just know a lot more about Rome than we do about other ancient cultures. The Romans tended to build in stone rather than wood, so we have more ruins. We have many texts and full books which were written by Romans, which is much more than we have from many other ancient Civilizations.
However, we also have something else. A singular archeological discovery of an entire Roman city that was better preserved than anything else from the ancient world.
Pompeii had its start in the 7th century BC as a Greek colony. Located on the bay of Naples, it was frequented by Greek and Phonecian sailors.
It later became an Etruscan city and was later settled by the Samnites, a people living on the Italian peninsula.
After the Romans defeated them in the Samnite Wars, the city came under Roman control and influence.
It became a popular city. Along with the nearby city of Neapolis, now called Naples, it was a resort city for elite Romans. Not only that, the slopes of Mount Vesuvius was prime agricultural real estate due to its fertile volcanic soils. It was well known for its vineyards.
Mount Vesuvius is a stratovolcano that was created in the collision of the European and African tectonic plates. It is part of a larger volcanic region in Italy that includes other famous volcanoes such as Mount Etna and Stromboli.
Vesuvius has been active ever since humans inhabited the area. Throughout the centuries, the mountain has erupted, and on several occasions, there were eruptions larger than what occurred in the year 79, including one massive eruption 4,000 years ago.
In the year 79, Titus was the Emperor of Rome. Pompeii was a thriving port city of about 12,000 people with neighboring villages in the vicinity.
The eruption of Vesuvius wasn’t a sudden thing that took everyone by surprise. There had been earthquakes for several years leading up to the eruption. The date when the eruption began is often given as August 24, 79, but there is some debate as to the exact date. It is possible it could have happened in September or October.
Much of what we know of the eruption came from the writings of Pliny the Younger. He was a Roman magistrate who wrote many letters which survived. He was raised by his uncle, Pliny, the Elder, who died in the eruption.
He witnessed the eruption from the town of Misenum, 29 kilometers or 18 miles from Vesuvius, across the Bay of Naples.
The eruption began around 1 pm with a column of smoke and ash rising out of the volcano and pumice raining down all over the region.
This lasted for about 18 hours, and it gave most of the residents of Pompeii and the surrounding region time to flee.
One common misconception people have about Pompeii is that everyone died in the eruption. Based on the number of bodies discovered, it is likely that most of the population managed to escape, and most people probably managed to escape with money and jewelry.
At some point the next day, either at night or in the early morning, pyroclastic flows began to come down the mountain.
Here I need to explain what a pyroclastic flow is because it is truly terrifying. A pyroclastic flow is an incredibly hot cloud of gas and ash that comes down from a volcano at incredibly high speeds.
By hot, I mean temperatures of 1,000 °C or 1,800 °F. By high speeds, I mean 700 km/h or 430 miles per hour.
It was the pyroclastic flows that killed everyone in Pompey.
It wasn’t a pleasant death. It was quick but not pleasant.
When the superheated gases hit people, their soft tissues would have vaporized instantly. One body found in Pompeii literally had its brain matter turn to a glassy substance.
Some people near the shore were trapped in stone buildings and were baked alive from the heat.
Over the next several hours, the super hot gas and ash piled up over the city.
When the eruption finally ended, survivors went to see what they could salvage, but they couldn’t find anything other than the tops of a few buildings.. The entire city was gone, having been buried by Vesuvius.
It wasn’t just Pompeii which disappeared. The nearby town of Herculaneum was gone, as well as all of the surrounding villas and their vineyard and fields.
Pompeii wasn’t forgotten.. The emperor sent two former consuls to Pompeii to assist the survivors and devoted large sums of money to help. He later visited the site himself. However, there were no efforts made at excavation or recovery.
Some thieves dug into some buildings and stole statues and other valuables, but that was it.
Over the next several hundred years, there were more eruptions that buried Pompeii even deeper. Pompeii was remembered as something in history, but the exact location of the city had been lost.
Fast forward almost 1500 years.
There were people who made limited discoveries of Pompeii. In 1592, one architect who was building an underground aqueduct discovered a building with paintings on the walls.
There were other very limited excavations of single buildings in 1689 and 1693.
However, the discovery which really changed everything took place in 1738. The foundation for a palace for Charles Burbon, the King of Naples, was being built when they happened upon the ruins of the nearby town of Herculaneum.
The King was very interested in the discoveries. This high quality of the finds gave prestige to Naples.
They didn’t actually know what they found initially. They just knew it was Roman ruins. This resulted in continued excavations for the next several decades.
By 1763, the ruins were identified as Pompeii.
The first proper excavations were begun by the Swiss architect Karl Weber in 1749.
Limited excavations continued for several decades. When Napoleon conquered Italy, he seized the land and employed 700 workers to work on the excavation.
The early excavation efforts were not as professional and painstaking as modern archeology is, and they ended up causing a great deal of damage to many of the buildings. The earliest digs at the site were focused on collecting artifacts, not on preserving the structures that were found.
But as excavations continued through the 19th and early 20th centuries, many modern archeology techniques were developed at Pompeii.
Over time, as more and more discoveries were made, Pompeii provided a glimpse into the ancient world like no other archeological find in history.
In the 19th century, the lead archeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, made an astonishing discovery. There would periodically come across empty spaces in the ash.
He eventually realized that these gaps were the spaces left by the decomposed remains of people. He developed a technique where they would inject plaster into the spaces. By doing so, they could capture the positions that people were in when they were overcome by hot ash when they died.
Another thing that was discovered was original scrolls at a private library in a villa in Herculaneum. Scrolls, being written on organic material, are something from the ancient world which are almost never found. When they are, they are usually found in extremely dry environments like Egypt or Israel.
The Herculaneum scrolls were often carbonized from the heat and so brittle that if attempts were made to unroll them, they would disintegrate.
Reachers have figured out how to read the scrolls without damaging them. By using a technique called x-ray phase-contrast tomography, they are able to scan individual layers of the scroll and decipher what was written on the pages.
Artwork can be found in most of the dwellings. This includes paintings on the walls and mosaics on the floors. The paintings show just how colorful and decorated even some modest Roman homes were. Many of the mosaics and paintings show an incredible amount of talent.
An entire amphitheater and forum has been unearthed, as have some of the city walls and all of the stone streets, which are in pristine condition.
Perhaps the biggest discoveries to come out of Pompeii have been the little things. So much of Roman history has to do with emperors, generals, or other historical figures. Pompeii showed how regular people lived their day-to-day lives.
For example, in the streets, you can see the wheel ruts which were used by the wagons Of even more interest are the stepping stones that periodically go across the street. The streets were filled with water and filth at the time, so crossing the street would mean getting dirty, so there were stepping stones on each block to let you cross without getting wet.
There was also a great deal of graffiti which has been found all over town. The nature of the graffiti is as varied as the people who lived there.
One man wrote, “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here” and left a date corresponding to October 3, 78.
Another was a dedication of love which read, “Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.”
One is an insult that said, “One speaks of ‘sheep-faced Lygnus, strutting about like a peacock and giving himself airs on the strength of his good looks,’”
Yet another was a memorial to a friend, which read “Pyrrhus to his chum Chias: I’m sorry to hear you are dead, and so, goodbye!”
There were also many political campaign slogans written all over town. One of them was “Marcus Cerrinius for aedile. Some people love him, some are loved by him, I can’t stand him.”
Pompeii also had brothels that were discovered. In the name of keeping the show family-friendly, I’ll simply say that the artwork inside could be used as a sort of menu of services provided.
There are also symbols carved into buildings along the street pointing the way to the establishments.
Not everything in Pompeii has been excavated. The unexcavated parts are slowly being uncovered, and new discoveries are being made. One of the more recent discoveries was that of a thermopolium in 2020, which was a Roman fast food stand.
In 2021 an entire ceremonial chariot was discovered.
While the ash that covered Pompeii did a masterful job of preserving everything, once the site was excavated, everything was now exposed to the elements. This resulted in many buildings starting to decay, and one of the biggest projects at Pompeii now is protecting what has been unearthed.
Plants have taken root in many of the buildings, and exposure to rain weakened some of the walls, which has caused some of them to collapse.
Most activity in Pompeii today is aimed at preservation, not new excavations.
Pompeii is, without question, the greatest archeological site in the world. There is nowhere else on the planet where so much has been preserved so well. Given the unique circumstances surrounding the quick burial of the city, it is unlikely that we will ever find something like Pompeii again.
I should note that Mount Vesuvius is still there, and it is still an active volcano. The last eruption occurred in 1944, but that isn’t very long in volcanic terms. It literally could start erupting again tomorrow.
I’ve been to Pompeii twice, and to be honest, I could easily go several more times. It is an entire city, and it is difficult to see everything in a single visit. Despite two visits, I still haven’t gotten to Herculaneum which is high on my to-do list.
In addition to just walking the streets of Pompeii and seeing the well-preserved buildings, there is also a museum onsite where you can see many of the artifacts which have been recovered, as well as the plaster casts of the people who were found in the ash.
If you are ever in Italy, I highly recommend making a special trip to see it.
It is the closest you can come to experiencing what everyday life was like for someone living in ancient Rome 2,000 years ago.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Ray Charles Barkley over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
No need to read this on the pod, I just felt compelled to leave a 5-star review to counteract that inane 1-star review you just read. I appreciate your industriousness, your curiosity, and the humanity you infuse into each topic —anyone mistaking this bold, independent effort to inject serendipity into our information streams for “arrogance” needs to listen more.
Thanks for what you do.
Thank you, Ray Charles Barkley! I personally don’t think I’m that arrogant. In fact, I’d call myself pretty humble. Actually, I’d go one step further and say that I’m more humble than any of you that are listening. I might be the most humble person on the planet and my humility is so great that monuments should be erected to humility so that future generations know just how humble I am.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.