Ancient History & Civilisation

The Resurrected Cities

“For several days past, there had been tremors of the earth; not too alarming, since they are frequent in Campania. But that night they became so violent people had the feeling everything was not merely moving but overturning. . . . By dawn daylight was still faint, hard to make out. The buildings around us were shaking. Though we were in an open space, it was small; we were terrified, certain they were coming down on us. At that point we finally resolve to leave the town. . . . Once beyond the houses, we halt—strange, fearsome sights meet us: the carriages, which we had ordered out, though on absolutely level ground, were rolling back and forth. . . . We also saw the sea sucked back on itself, as if it had been forced back by the quaking of the earth. No question about it, it had receded from the shore and left quantities of sea creatures stranded on dry sand. On the landward side, a dreadful black cloud, split by jagged, quivering shafts of fiery exhalation, yawned wide to reveal long flaming shapes. . . . Soon the cloud came down to earth and enveloped the sea; it had already enveloped and hidden Capri and removed the promontory of Misenum from sight. . . . By now ash was falling, though as yet lightly. I look back: dense blackness was pressing from behind, it followed us, rolling over the land like a river in flood. . . . The fiery lights continued, some distance away, then darkness again, then again the ash, thick and heavy. . . . At last the darkness thinned and dispersed as if into smoke or mist. Then there was true daylight, the sun even shone, but pale and murky, as it does during an eclipse. We trembled at the sight that met us, of everything changed and piled high with ashes like snow.” So wrote Pliny the Younger in answer to a request from his friend Tacitus for an account of the fatal days when Vesuvius erupted and smothered the towns on its flanks, including Herculaneum and Pompeii, under a blanket of ash. It took place on August 24, 25, and 26 in the year A.D. 79; Pliny, then a youth of about eighteen, happened to be staying at Cape Misenum, a mere twenty miles as the crow flies from the tip of the volcano.

Pompeii lay undisturbed and hidden under the ash, its very location forgotten, until the middle of the eighteenth century, when the first excavators - or, more accurately, hunters of art treasures - began to burrow in its ruins. As always, there was both official and unofficial digging: The first was promoted by the Bourbon kings of Naples, the other went on clandestinely to feed the lucrative market for Pompeian objets d’art that arose once the news of the spectacular finds had spread over Europe. Sir William Hamilton, British envoy to the court of Naples, built up a superb collection, including prize pieces from both Pompeii and Herculaneum; he sold it to the British Museum for £8400, and rumor had it that this was the price he paid to win the femme fatale he married in 1791 - and lost soon after, when she began her celebrated liaison with Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 1860, excavation started in earnest, on a large scale and in serious fashion; with minor interruptions, it has continued ever since. The result has been the laying bare of an ancient site that is unique. The catastrophe struck the town in the midst of its normal routine, and the ash has preserved things just as they were when people dropped them to run for their lives; in some pathetic cases, it has preserved the people as well, those who did not make it to safety. No other archaeological excavation illustrates so vividly the nature of daily life in the ancient world. It is from Pompeii that we know in detail how the Romans decorated their houses, what furniture they kept in them, what silverware they put on their tables and what cooking utensils on their hearths, what instruments their doctors used, what their brothels looked like, what their election notices or for-rent signs were like, and so on.

Pompeii was founded as an agricultural village perhaps as early as the eighth century B.C. It grew into a town when, in the late fifth century B.C., it was taken over by the aggressive Italic people called the Samnites. These built the first true houses there, one-story buildings that turned inward, like the traditional homes in Spanish America. To the street, they presented almost blank walls. Windowless, or near windowless, rooms surrounded an atrium hall in the front of the house, and the rear enclosed a patio or garden. The atrium had a roof that sloped inward to a large square opening so that rain could fall from it into a pool below and into a cistern underneath that.

The community throve. It was flanked by fields of rich volcanic soil, and it stood on the shore of the Bay of Naples; it was in a position to profit agriculturally and commercially. Early in the first century B.C., Rome moved in, took over political control, and brought the town into the embrace of its widening domains. Roman families then joined, in many cases no doubt drove out, the Samnite families, and the building of new homes went on apace. These retained the general design of the old-fashioned houses, the atrium and patio, but introduced numerous variations to increase grace and comfort: an enlarged patio with bedrooms opening off it, a cloistered garden behind, duplicate salons for winter and summer use respectively, and so on. The establishment of the Roman Empire under Augustus brought the same prosperity to Pompeii that it had elsewhere; there grew up a substantial trade in agricultural products, particularly wine, and in textiles. The middle class, just as at Rome, grew bigger and richer. Now they too could afford homes as substantial as those of the local gentry, but by this time the provincial little town was running out of space. And so we find some of the very wealthy moving to the suburbs, where they erected elegant villas set in open ground and commanding lovely views of the sea and mountains; the famous Villa of the Mysteries, so called because its walls are decorated with scenes of an initiation into some mystic religious cult, was one of these. It was still possible for a rich man to build himself an elaborate mansion in town - the sumptuous House of the Vettii, which every guided tour to Pompeii includes, was put up by a pair of successful merchants no more than two decades before the fatal eruption. But such houses were becoming increasingly rare. More commonly the old-fashioned stately homes were taken over for the town’s commercial needs. One of Pompeii’s specialties was the processing of textiles and cleaning of garments; the establishments were all installed in remodeled private houses, with troughs for steeping cloth sitting amid the elegance of columned porticoes. One fine, venerable residence, the so-called House of Sallust, was partly made over into business property, with a second floor clapped on it to accommodate additional rooms and its façade altered to allow for a street-front bar; it reminds one of the palazzi in Florence or Rome that now accommodate shops, offices, or tourist pensioni. Along the main streets, the practice of putting up buildings with two floors was growing. At the moment of its death, Pompeii was still a provincial town, its population some 25,000 at most, in which families had each their own home; had it lived on and continued to grow at the same rate, almost certainly wholesale demolition would have started to make way for blocks of flats, as at Rome and Ostia.

Pompeii’s houses line the streets with no open space between, in front, or in back. This is because they embrace their own open space: A house of any pretension included at the rear its patio, a miniature cloister surrounded by the family bedrooms. What is most striking about all the homes, whether mansions or modest dwellings, is the richness of the interior decoration. Pompeians with money obviously liked to spend it on feathering their nests: They covered their walls with murals, often including copies by local artists of famed Greek paintings; they paved the floors with mosaics; they filled niches, porticoes, angles, and other suitable spots with stone or bronze statuary, again mostly copies of Greek masterpieces. Portrait busts of the greats of the past - Demosthenes, Epicurus, and the like - were also a favored form of décor, and it was common to set up in the atrium one of the master of the house himself. These are fascinating: Faithfully reproducing the subject, they show us in unvarnished fashion what the good burghers who could afford these homes looked like.

Pompeii’s public buildings are much the same as those found in all provincial Roman towns - much the same, aside from size and grandeur, as those in Rome itself. There were three bath complexes located to serve three different areas of the city. The entertainment facilities were on the edge of town, an amphitheatre accommodating some 20,000 for gladiatorial combats and two theatres for musical and stage events, one open and large seating about 5,000, the other covered and small seating about 1,000. The government buildings were all clustered about the forum: city hall, meeting place of the town council, law court, and two important temples, to Jupiter and Apollo. Also flanking the forum was an elaborate food market, an enclosed square with small shops for selling various items along one side, a large room in one corner for selling fish and meat, and a pen with live animals for customers seeking sacrificial victims. Alongside the forum, too, was the headquarters of one of those clubs that played so important a role in Roman urban life, in this instance the society of fullers, that is, processors of new cloth and cleaners of garments, perhaps the most prestigious trade association of the town. It was a sumptuous building with an ample open court surrounded by a corridor and garnished with a two-level colonnade. The fullers owed it to the generosity of a certain Eumachia, a lady who was not only charitable but good-looking, as we can tell from the statue the grateful society set up in her honor in a prominently placed recess.

Pompeii’s officialdom consisted of two duumvirs, mayors with added judicial authority; two aediles, or commissioners of streets, markets, baths, and entertainment; and a town council of 100 selected substantial citizens. The government was remarkably efficient. Streets were paved in the same solid fashion as Rome’s great highways, had sidewalks, and even had steppingstones so that pedestrians could cross without messing their sandaled feet with the mud and dung in the road. At various key points were watering troughs for animals. And the amphitheatre and theatres, together with the numerous notices that have been found announcing lavish gladiatorial combats, make it clear that the aediles gave due attention to public entertainment.

The Pompeians had their fair share of the age-old means for entertaining themselves - bars, taverns, restaurants, and brothels. The thirsty had no trouble locating the nearest bar or tavern: These were instantly identifiable by the characteristic counter opening onto the street to serve customers who wanted just a quick glass of wine. The taverns included rooms behind for more leisurely drinking or for eating, and chambers on a floor above for any who wanted to satisfy the sexual appetite as well. The decor was usually referential, wall paintings showing the locale in action, guests eating, drinking, gaming, quarreling. Sometimes these are embellished with captions. A painting of a waiter pouring out wine for a customer is accompanied by the written instruction, “Add cold water - but just a wee bit!” In another, we see two customers seated at a table playing dice. One has just thrown and announces triumphantly, “I’m out!” The other replies, “No! It’s three 2s.” There follows a second scene in which we see three figures, all on their feet. The first two are our pair of gamblers, and one is saying, “So strike me dead - I swear I won!” The second calls him a filthy obscenity and shouts, “I won!” And the third, the proprietor, pushing the two toward the door, says, “Go on outside to do your fighting!”

Pompeii had at least twenty-five brothels, including one that was designed to handle multiple clients: it had ten chambers - tiny dark cells - on two levels, each decorated formally with a painting showing a version of the sex act, and informally with the client’s scribbled comments.

As a matter of fact, it is the handwriting on the walls that, more than anything else, brings Pompeii alive to us. We can sense what politics was like from the many election notices preserved: In Pompeii, these were written on the outside walls of houses and shops, some in the rough printing of a casual supporter, others in the handsome lettering of a hired professional. They run to formulas, as ours tend to do: “Make Marcus Marius aedile. A good man!”; “The goldsmiths unanimously endorse the election of Gaius Cuspius Pansa as aedile”; “Satia and Petronia ask you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius. May we always have such citizens in our community!”; “Genialis urges the election of Bruttius Balbus as duumvir. He will be the watch-dog of our treasury!” (not too free a translation of hic aerarium conservabit, “he will preserve the treasury”). One candidate for aedile campaigned so hard (there are more than a dozen notices supporting his election) that he caught the attention of Pompeii’s jokesters: among the groups that declare their adherence are the Dormientes universi, “the Sleepyheads en masse,” the Seri Bibi universi, “the Drunken Stay-Out-Lates en masse,” the sneak thieves, and a chap who signs himself Verus Innocens, “Mr. I. B. Honest.”

In the absence of television, newspapers, magazines, and other such modern media, the Pompeians used their walls for all sorts of public notices. We find announcements of gladiatorial shows (“The troupe of gladiators of the aedile, Aulus Suettius Certus, will be fighting at Pompeii May 31. Also a wild-beast hunt. Awnings will be provided” - no small inducement for an audience required to spend a whole day under the Mediterranean sun in early summer), of property for rent (“In the Arrius Pollio block, Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius prop., to let from the 1st of next July, shops with living quarters, high-class second-story apartments, a house. Interested parties please apply to Primus, slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius”), of lost objects (“A copper pot has been taken from this shop. 65 sesterces [about $260] reward for whoever brings it back, 20 sesterces [about $8.00] for identifying the thief so we can get our property back”). Then there are the graffiti pure and simple, random scribblings of every possible kind, from records of winning bets to the number of steps it took one house owner to walk the length of his patio. Someone named Paris wrote Paris hic fuit 1,900 years before the world ever heard of Kilroy. Staphilus hic cum Quieta, “Staphylus was here with Quieta,” on a house wall is more or less the Pompeian equivalent of our “John loves Mary” on a tree trunk. (Staphylus had a way with girls; another graffito reads Romula hic cum Staphylo moratur, “Romula dallies here with Staphylus.”). Pompeians defaced walls with exactly the same kind of obscenities found in public toilets today. They even scribbled inside their houses: Children practiced their ABC’s on the walls of their rooms, and a mural in a home that the excavator sentimentally ascribes to a pair of newlyweds has scratched on it, “Lovers, like bees, lead a honeyed life.” As a matter of fact, graffiti were so ubiquitous that people wrote graffiti about them; in three different public places, we find the jingle: “I marvel you don’t collapse, O walls, / beneath the burden of so many scrawls.”

Pompeii illustrates one aspect of Roman life. Another is revealed by Ostia, the city that served as the port of Rome. Its ruins lie at the mouth of the Tiber River, some fifteen miles downstream from the capital. Pompeii, with its provincial air, one-family homes, houses that were leftovers from a more leisurely lifestyle, bygone elegance still abundantly visible, reminds one of some of our New England towns that have passed their prime. Ostia is an ancient Weehawken or Jersey City, a city of docks and warehouses and offices, of businessmen who dealt not in oxcarts of wine for nearby neighbors but in cargoes of it, and of grain and olive oil and all the other imports, down to lions for the Colosseum, that Rome needed; a city of work gangs who manned the yards, wharves, barges, ferries, lofts.

Ostia’s history matches that of our Fort Dodge or Santa Fe: it began, in the fourth century B.C., as the site of a fort, to keep enemies from penetrating the river. Within a century or so, it started to assume the role it was to play for the next 600 to 700 years, the point where cargoes for Rome were unloaded, stored, and forwarded upriver. As Rome grew, so did Ostia, becoming by Augustus’s time a flourishing entrepot, despite the fact that the mouth of the river, exposed to wind and weather, made a poor harbor. In the second half of the first century A.D., this was rectified: Claudius started, Nero completed, and Trajan expanded a magnificent manmade port some two miles to the north. It brought more business than ever to Ostia, and the town entered upon its halcyon days when it supported a population of perhaps 50,000. This was exactly during the period that particularly interests us, the second century A.D.: The streets upon streets of houses, shops, and public buildings whose ruins we walk through today were for the most part put up during the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius.

In the very heart of Ostia, the walls of the old fort still stand, buried amid the structures raised around them when the town burst their bonds, as commerce rather than defense became the focus of existence. In the quarters nearby are remains here and there of spacious private houses with atrium and patio, like those in Pompeii, relics of a time when there still was land to spare. But as the population swelled, Ostia, just like today’s burgeoning commercial centers, was forced to build vertically. It became a small-scale Rome, a city of apartment houses. They stood one alongside the other, all three or four stories high, usually with shops occupying the part of the ground floor that opened on the street. They were built of concrete faced with brick, and though doorways were tricked out with pilasters or engaged columns and similar architectural decoration, and the second floors adorned with balconies, Ostia’s streets must have presented a monotonous appearance.

The town housed all classes of people, from the slaves who sweated on the docks to the bankers who financed the cargoes. For the poor, there were tenements with cramped quarters in the older parts of town. For the middle and upper classes, there was housing of all grades, the finest being in blocks of handsome garden apartments, each complex standing alone in an open area. The flats in them, presumably among the best Ostia offered, show that even well-to-do families made do with minimal space. The buildings were oblong, and each floor was quartered into four identical oblong five-room apartments. These extended from the middle of the building to the corners: At the inner end were a main and service entrance and the kitchen; from here ran a wide corridor that, passing three interior chambers lighted only indirectly from the corridor windows, ended at a fine large room with double exposure at the corner of the building. This last must have served as both dining and living room, and the windowless chambers as bedrooms. There were no bathrooms; the families surely used commodes, and then there were the latrines in a set of public baths just a short distance away. Excavators have so far unearthed sixteen such bath complexes; every quarter of the town had one conveniently nearby.

Who lived in these elegant apartments? We get some clues from the names in the many inscriptions and tomb plaques that have been uncovered. They reveal that the population of Ostia, like its streets, was a replica in miniature of Rome. There was an upper crust of established Roman and Italian gentry who monopolized the honorary and political offices of the town. Below them was a large, well-to-do middle class that ran the port’s trades and supplied its services. Its members were for the most part of foreign origin, people from all over the Mediterranean, from France and Spain and North Africa as well as Greece and the Near East, who had arrived as slaves and earned their freedom. And below them was the horde of slaves who did the blue-collar work.

The ruins of Ostia include well-preserved examples of commercial buildings - warehouses, lofts, offices. One of the most remarkable complexes is a spacious forum-like area behind the theatre that modern archaeologists have dubbed the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, “Corporation Square.” Three sides of a vast square are surrounded by a colonnade, and opening on it is a line of small offices. The colonnade has a mosaic paving, and in front of many of the offices this includes an identifying picture and inscription: “The Shippers of Narbo (Narbonne),” with a picture of a freighter passing the lighthouse of the harbor; “The Shippers of Carthage,” with a picture of two freighters passing the lighthouse, and so on. Anyone searching for a passage to, say, Carthage did not have to tramp the waterfront endlessly questioning but simply went to the office here and found out when the next ship was expected to leave.

The ruins include, as we would expect, examples of club headquarters. An inscription found in place identifies that of the Builders’ Association, a handsome two-story structure whose ground floor encompassed an open court and portico, at least five dining rooms, chapel, kitchen, and latrine. The upper floor probably had committee rooms and bedrooms.

When, in A.D. 331, Constantine shifted the capital of the empire to his new foundation of Constantinople, Rome began to go rapidly downhill. Inevitably it dragged Ostia down with it - fewer and fewer freighters put into the harbor, and the town was left with less and less to keep it alive. The port, now the nucleus of a good-sized community, handled any activity there was. People drifted away, and downtown Ostia soon began to show typical signs of urban blight - houses either totally derelict or with the upper floors walled up and just the lower occupied. There was one brief period of revival, when, in the fourth century A.D., the town became a popular summer resort for the very wealthy; excavation has uncovered the remains of the sumptuous villas they built for themselves in the quarters nearest the shore. But this soon flickered out. The remaining population departed for better prospects elsewhere, and malaria, flourishing in the now-neglected marshy land all about, killed off the few who tried to stay on. The harbor, no longer attended, silted up; today some of the structures of Rome’s international airport stand where Roman freighters used to moor.

Unlike Pompeii, Ostia died a slow and lingering death. For centuries, it lay abandoned, a graveyard of ruins. Builders cannibalized its crumbling stones; treasure hunters carried off its fallen sculptures. Not until 1909 did systematic excavation begin. Since then, Italian archaeologists have resurrected at least half of the ancient city and patched and restored the ruins with such care that today one can spend hours walking its streets and prowling about its buildings. Pompeii offers charm, variety, and fascinating glimpses of its bustling, occasionally gracious, small-town way of life. Ostia offers an unvarnished look at a hard-working commercial town - such as Rome itself was, when one walked away from the grandeur of its public monuments.

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