Ancient History & Civilisation



Pompeii, Troy, Mycenæ, Crete

What marvel is this? We begged you for drinkable springs, O earth, and what is your lap sending forth? Is there life in the deeps as well? A race yet unknown Hiding under the lava? Are they who had fled returning? Come and see, Greeks; Romans, come! Ancient Pompeii Is found again, the city of Hercules rises!



In the year 1738 Maria Amalia Christine, daughter of Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, married Charles of Bourbon, King of the Two Sicilies, and moved to Naples. The lively young Queen, who was of artistic bent, explored the spacious precincts of her palace gardens and discovered there a wealth of statuary and other carved works. Some of these had been found accidentally before the last eruption of Vesuvius, and others were dug up later on the initiative of a certain General d’Elbœuf.

Delighted by the beauty of these antiquities, she begged her royal husband to let her look for new pieces. The King gave in because Vesuvius had been quiet for a year and a half since the great outbreak of May 1737.

The likeliest place to continue the search was where d’Elbœuf had left off on the side of the volcano. The King sought the advice of a certain Cavaliere Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubierre, commanding officer of the Royal Engineers. This Spaniard organized a labor force and equipped it with tools and blasting powder. The difficulties were formidable, for at the outset the diggers had to penetrate 49.5 feet of stony-hard lava deposit. Working outward from a well shaft discovered by d’Elbœuf, Alcubierre’s crew cut passages and bored blastholes. At last the men’s picks struck on metal, making it ring like a bell. The first find consisted of three fragments of bronze equestrian statues sculptured on heroic scale.

Now, finally, an expert was brought into the enterprise. The Marchese Don Marcello Venuti, humanist and royal librarian, henceforth supervised the handling and disposition of further discoveries. Three marble sculptures of Roman figures in togas, some painted columns, and the bronze torso of a horse were next unearthed. The royal couple came to inspect the finds. The Marchese had himself lowered down the shaft on a rope, and discovered a flight of stairs. Its construction gave him some clue to what sort of edifice it was into which they were tunneling. Several weeks later, on December 11, 1738, an inscription was found indicating that a certain Rufus had built, with money of his own, the “Theatrum Herculanense.”

It now appeared that a buried city had been revealed, for almost certainly a theater could only have been in an inhabited place. By luck, it seemed, d’Elbœuf, the first excavator, had struck the very middle of the stage. This stage was littered with statuary. It was the one spot on the whole site where it was possible to find sculpture piled up literally one piece on top of another. The enormous stream of lava had rolled against the back wall of the theater, which had been richly decorated with carved works, and toppled it down upon the stage. For seventeen hundred years the stone figures had lain undisturbed.

The inscription gave the name of the city as Herculaneum.

Lava, a liquidly flowing stone, is a mixture of several kinds of minerals, which hardens as it cools into glass and new kinds of rock. Herculaneum was covered to a depth of 65 feet by this material.

Lapilli, on the other hand, consist of small fragments of glassy volcanic rock. When spewed out of a volcano together with greasy ashes, these little stones descend as a relatively light rain, and form a loose cover not too resistant to light tools. Pompeii lay under a blanket of this kind and, moreover, was not nearly so deeply buried as its sister city, Herculaneum.

In history, as in the life of the individual, it often happens that the difficult course is chosen in preference to the easier one, and the longest way mistaken for the shortest. Thirty-five years passed after d’Elbœuf’s initial efforts at Herculaneum before the first spade-cut was made which ultimately led to the uncovering of Pompeii.

The Cavaliere Alcubierre became dissatisfied with results at d’Elbœuf’s site, even though these had already yielded to Charles of Bourbon a collection of antiquities superior to any other in the world at the time. King and engineer agreed that excavation activities ought to be moved to areas indicated by scholars, instead of blindly hacking away at the lava debris and trusting to luck. Ancient sources reported that Pompeii was destroyed on the same day as the city of Hercules.

On April 1, 1748, the new excavations were started. By April 6 the first marvelous wall painting had already been found and on April 19 the first body was uncovered. Stretched out full-length on the floor was a skeleton, with gold and silver coins that had rolled out of bony hands still seeking, it seemed, to clutch them fast.

But now, instead of continuing to dig systematically and evaluating what had already been found in order to facilitate further progress, the pits were filled in. No one appears to have had any notion that the very middle of Pompeii had been breached. Instead, more holes were started.

The royal couple’s interest, after all, was superficial, the passing enthusiasm of cultured laymen. Moreover, Charles’s intellectual and æsthetic preoccupations did not amount to much. As for Alcubierre, his only interest was to master a technical engineering problem. All others connected with the project simply hoped for another sudden stroke of luck which would bring them another haul of gold and silver. Of the twenty-four men employed at the diggings on April 6, twelve were criminals. Neither they nor their miserably remunerated fellow workers could be expected to take a detached view of the proceedings.

The auditorium of the amphitheater was now laid open. But when no statues, gold, or ornaments of any kind were turned up, the diggings were again moved elsewhere. A little more patience and they would have struck it rich. Near the Gate of Hercules they came upon a villa that—on what justification no one seems to know—was declared to be Cicero’s house. On the walls of the villa were wonderful frescoes, which were cut out and copied. Then the excavated dirt was promptly shoveled back into place. To climax this bizarre procedure, for four whole years thereafter the area around Cività (the earlier Pompeii) was quite neglected, in favor of richer diggings at Herculaneum. There was discovered one of the most interesting treasures known up to that time, the villa containing the library of the philosopher Philodemus, the “Villa dei Papiri.”

Finally in 1754 excavations were again undertaken on the south side of Pompeii, and the remains of some tombs and ancient masonry were unearthed. From that time up to the present, digging has been in progress, with few interruptions, in both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The catastrophe that overwhelmed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum turned out to be of tremendous significance to archæology.

In the middle of August A.D. 79, there were signs that Vesuvius was again about to erupt, but since Vesuvius was often active, at first there was no alarm. On the forenoon of the 24th, however, it became clear that a disaster of unparalleled dimensions was in the making. The top of the mountain split apart with a thunderous explosion. Smoke mushroomed into the sky, darkening the sun. A rain of volcanic cinder and ashes began to sift down, amid terrific crashes and terrifying flashes of light. Birds tumbled dead out of theair, people ran about screaming, animals slunk into hiding. Meanwhile torrents of water rushed through the streets, and no one could tell whether they came from the sky or out of the earth.

This violence descended on the two cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the busy, sunny hours of early morning and worked their total destruction in two different ways. An avalanche of mud—a mixture of volcanic ash, rain, and lava—poured massively over Herculaneum, forcing its way into streets and alleys, rising higher and higher, and always increasing in pressure. The flow covered roofs, ran in through doors and windows, and eventually filled Herculaneum as water fills the interstices of a sponge. Everything and everyone not immediately evacuated were buried deep.

At Pompeii it was different. Here there were no flood of muck; disaster began with a light fall of ash, so light that people were able to brush the powdery dust off their shoulders. Soon, however, lapilli began to come down, then occasional bombs of pumice weighing many pounds. The extent of the danger was only gradually revealed, and only when it was too late. Clouds of sulphur fumes settled down on the city. They seeped through cracks and crevices and billowed up under the cloths that the suffocating townsfolk held up to their faces. If they ran outdoors seeking air and freedom, they were met by a thick hail of lapilli that drove them back in terror to the shelter of their homes. Roofs caved in, whole families were buried. Others were spared for a time. For a half hour or so they crouched in fear and trembling under stairs and arched doors. The fumes reached them, and they choked to death.

The sun came out forty-eight hours later, but by this time Pompeii and Herculaneum had ceased to exist. For a distance of eleven miles around, the landscape had been destroyed. Clouds of ash were borne by air currents as far as Africa, Syria, and Egypt. Yet now nothing but a thin column of smoke issued from Vesuvius, smudging the lovely blue dome of sky.

Almost seventeen hundred years passed. New generations, with other customs and new forms of knowledge, struck spades into the earth and brought forth the dead cities from oblivion. It was almost like a resurrection, a miracle.

The archæologist, infatuated with his work to the exclusion of the usual pieties, is quite capable of praising this sort of catastrophe as a stroke of luck. Even Goethe, the author of immortal tragedies, in his capacity as a scientist said of Pompeii: “I hardly know of anything more interesting …” and did not realize he was being callous. It is indeed hard to imagine a better way of preserving a whole city for the benefit of posterity, of catching it fairly in the midst of its everyday activity, than by sealing it beneath a great blanket of ash. Pompeii was quite different from the ruins of a city which had died a natural death by a process of withering away. The living community was touched with a magic wand, and the laws of time, of becoming and of fading, lost their validity.

Before the first excavation nothing but the bare memory of the two cities’ entombment remained. But once digging began, little by little the whole dramatic event took shape in men’s minds, and information on the catastrophe left by the authors of antiquity came to life. The full frightfulness of the disaster was realized. The daily round had been cut off so abruptly that the suckling pig was found where it had been left to roast in the oven, and bread discovered half done on the baker’s peel.

What a story of death in debacle these poor bones could tell, bones still wearing the fetters of the slavel The sifting, seeping flow of ash and lapilli had steadily risen higher and higher, lifting a chained dog with it. And at last, when it filled the room, he had perished, still fastened to his leash, next to the ceiling.

The excavators’ shovels revealed all manner of family tragedies, scenes of mothers, fathers, and children caught in absolute extremity. Mothers were found still holding their children in their arms, protecting them with the last bit of veil as they both suffocated. Men and women were dug up who had gathered their valuables together, got as far as the city gate, and there collapsed under the stony hail, still clinging to their gold and precious things. “Cave canem,” reads a sign in mosaic at the gate of the house in which Bulwer-Lytton lodged his Glaucus in The Last Days of Pompeii. At the threshold of one house two young women were found who had hesitated until it was too late, intending to go back into the house and salvage some of their treasures.

Body after body was found at the Gate of Hercules, bodies all heaped together, and still encumbered with the household gear that had grown too heavy to drag any farther. In a sealed room the skeletons of a woman and a dog were uncovered. Close examination revealed a grisly incident. Whereas the skeleton of the dog had remained intact, the woman’s bones were scattered about the floor. Apparently crazed by hunger, the dog’s wolfish nature had come to the fore and he had fallen on his dead mistress and eaten her. Not far from this house was another in which funeral rites had been in progress when cataclysm fell. There they were, the funeral guests, after seventeen hundred years still sprawled on their benches about the table bearing the funeral feast, mourners at their own obsequies.

In an adjacent building seven children had been surprised by death while innocently playing in a room. In still another structure thirty-four bodies were found, with them the remains of a goat that, in his fright, had rushed indoors to find safety among humankind. Neither courage nor a cool head nor brute strength helped those who delayed their flight too long. The remains of a truly gigantic man were uncovered. In vain he had tried to protect his wife and their fourteen-year-old child, who were hastening along ahead of him. Apparently with a last, despairing surge of strength he had tried to pick them up, but just then the fumes had stupefied him, and slowly he crumpled, rolled over on his back, and stretched out, in which position ashes buried him and preserved his tremendous form. The excavators poured plaster of Paris into the depression where he had lain, and in this way secured the proportions of a dead Pompeian.

The rows of houses, the Temple of Isis, the amphitheater—all were there exactly as they had looked on the fateful August day. The wax tablets still lay on the study table, the papyrus rolls were still in the library, the tools in the work-sheds, the scrubbing brushes still in the baths. Vessels and dishes were found on inn tables, likewise the money left by departing guests who had hurriedly paid their accounts to proprietors who had already left. On tavern walls verses were found, scurrilous or sentimental, written by lovers, and beautiful frescoes on villa walls (see Plate I).

It was the cultured man of the eighteenth century who first saw this richly detailed museum of the past. The Renaissance had prepared him for the æsthetic appreciation of antique splendors. But he also sensed the incipient power of science and was eager to dedicate himself to facts rather than rest content with mere contemplation of the beautiful and strange. To do justice to both these viewpoints someone was needed who combined a love for the art of antiquity with a talent for systematic investigation and criticism. At the time the excavation of Pompeii was first attempted, the man who would fill this dual role was employed as librarian by a German count and at thirty had yet to accomplish anything of note.

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