Pompeii was a coastal Roman city in Campania, a region in southwestern Italy. In A.D. 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under a thick blanket of volcanic ash. Because the buried city is so well preserved, Pompeii is probably the most spectacular and informative archaeological* site in the world.
According to the Greek writer Strabo, the first inhabitants of the region were the prehistoric people called Oscans. The Etruscans later took control of the small fishing and farming village when they expanded their control over Campania. Greek colonists in southern Italy also established a trading settlement there. Some Greek buildings that have been found at the site date from before 500 B.C.
* archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
In the 400s B.C., migrating people from the interior of Italy, known as Samnites, took control of Pompeii. In the early 200s B.C., Rome defeated the Samnites, and Pompeii came under Roman control. During Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (in the Second Punic War, 218-201 B.C.), Pompeii remained loyal to Rome. However, in the Social War, in which the Italian people rose up against the Romans, Pompeii sided with the rebels. The Roman general Sulla lay siege* to Pompeii and captured the city in 89 B.C.
As punishment for siding with the enemy, Sulla colonized Pompeii with a large number of his retired soldiers, a move that caused friction between the colonists and the longtime residents. During the reign of the emperor Nero, a riot between rival factions broke out in the amphitheater*, causing many deaths. In A.D. 62, only 17 years before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, an earthquake severely damaged the city.
In A.D. 79, Pompeii was suddenly destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. Together with the neighboring village of Herculaneum, Pompeii was buried under pumice*, volcanic ash, and eventually a layer of earth. At the time of the disaster, Pompeii had a population of about 25,000 people, most of whom seem to have escaped.
The site remained little known and largely unoccupied until it was rediscovered in the 1700s. Pompeii immediately became the subject of great interest and curiosity. Since then, the city has been heavily excavated*. About 80 percent of the area inside the city walls has now been uncovered and examined. Much of the recent work at the site has involved record keeping, preservation of the site, and analysis of what has already been excavated.
Archaeological studies have concluded that there were three main areas of public buildings inside the walls that surrounded the city. The first contained a Greek temple, a temple of Isis, a portico* that was converted into a school for gladiators*, and two theaters. In the second area, the city’s large main forum* was flanked by two-story high colonnades*; a basilica*; temples of Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and the Genius of the Emperor; and five government buildings.
* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid
* amphitheater oval or round structure with rows of seats rising gradually from a stage or central open space
* pumice volcanic rock used to clean and polish materials
* excavate to uncover by digging
* portico roof supported by columns, forming a porch or covered walkway
* gladiator in ancient Rome, slave or captive who participated in combats that were staged for public entertainment
* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings
* colonnade series of regularly spaced columns, usually supporting a roof
* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place
The oldest existing Roman amphitheater and a large sports area were located in the third area. The city had at least four public baths. At first, the city obtained its water from wells and cisterns*, but in later years an aqueduct* delivered water to the public baths and fountains and to some private homes.
Pompeii’s most famous feature is its private houses. Although they varied in size and layout, most were built around a central reception hall, or atrium*, and had an interior colonnaded garden. Wall paintings decorated the interiors of the houses, and mosaics covered the floors. The artwork from Pompeii gives us a sense of what Roman houses looked like and how they were decorated. Many of the wall paintings were copies of important Greek works that have been lost. (See also Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Architecture, Roman; Art, Roman; Etruscans.)
* cistern tank for storing rainwater
* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed
* atrium central hall of a Roman house that had a hole in the roof for the purpose of collecting rainwater