The history and art of the city
Article added on March 1, 2006
A short history of the city of
Pompeii was once a flourishing
port city overlooking the Sarno river valley. The origins of the town are
unclear, but the oldest report date back to the end of the 7th century BC.
It was a multicultural city with native, Etruscan and Greek influences.
At the end of the 5th century BC, the Samnite tribes came down from the
mountains of Samnio and Irpinia and settled in the area of what is today
known as the province of Campania (fertile plain), with Nuceria as
its capital; today's regional capital is the city of Naples.
When Rome expanded towards southern Italy from 343 to 290 BC through a mix
of alliances and military campaigns, Pompeii became an ally (socia)
of the Roman political system (res publica). However, in 90 and 89
BC, the population of Pompeii and other cities rebelled, demanding equal
social and political rights from Rome. Pompeii was besieged by Roman troops
led by P. Cornelius Sulla and finally surrendered. It became a Roman colony
named Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum in 80 BC.
As a colony, Pompeii continued to flourish, especially under the reigns of
the emperors of Octavian Augustus (from 27 BC to 14 AD) and Tiberius (from
14 AD to 37 AD). In 62, a violent earthquake struck the entire Vesuvian
area. Reconstruction was not finished when on August 24, 79 AD the city of
Pompeii was buried under ash and rock.
The city was only rediscovered in the 16th century. The exploration of the
site only began in 1748 under the reign of the King of Naples Charles III of
Bourbon. Today, some 3/4 of the 66 ha of the city of Pompeii have been
excavated, whereas in nearby Erolano 2/3 of the city still lay under the
ground of the present day city.
Pompeii was covered by some 6m of ashes and rock, killing some 20,000
people, whereas in nearby Ercolano some 5,000 people died in the days
following under a 20 meter high pyroclastic mudslide caused by the volcanic
eruption; over the years, the material was transformed into an impressive
20m wall of tuff covering the site.
A few of the many sites to visit in Pompeii
Among the many valuable archaeological sites to visit in the Pompeii, one
has to mention the Temple of Venus. The goddess Venus was the protectress of
Lucius Cornelius Sulla as well as of the city of Pompeii. The Temple of
Venus was built on the western edge of the city's hill during the early part
of the Sullan colony in 80 BC.
Another outstanding site are the Suburban baths. Built from the 1st century
BC to the 1st century AC on an artificial terrace facing the sea, they
feature richly decorated bathing rooms. The Suburban baths include a warm
indoor pool and a small cold pool with painted walls ending in a niche with
a waterfall supplied by an imitation cave, decorated with a mosaic depicting
the Roman God Mars and cherub angels. The cold room (frigidarium) is
decorated with stucco squares. The dressing room features 16 panels with
erotic scenes, including one with two women engaging in Lesbian sex, unique
in Roman painting.
The Forum baths were built after 80 BC, following the layout of the larger
Stabian baths: the men's and women's sections are separated and located on
the sides of the furnaces. The dressing room (apodyterium) is
followed by the cold bathing room (frigidarium), the warm room (tepidarium)
and the hot room (caldarium). The Forum baths also feature a
porticoed palaestra, which can be entered from Via del Foro or the men's
dressing room. The warm room was heated by a large bronze brazier.
With its 2970 square meters, the House of the Faun is the largest house in
Pompeii. It was built by an unknown wealthy owner over a previous dwelling
in the early 2nd century BC. Its mosaic threshold is now on display at the
Museum of Archaeology of the City of Naples. In the atrium's low basin (impluvium)
stands a bronze statue of the faun (the original is exhibited in Naples).
Between two porticoed gardens is the exedra, the core of the house, with
Corinthian columns, stuccoed, painted capitals and an outstanding mosaic
(exhibited in Naples' Museum of Archaeology) depicting the victory of
Alexander the Great over Darius, the King of Persia.
Another famous site is the Lupanare, built in the city's final days. Lupa
is the Latin word for prostitute. The Lupanare was Pompeii's only brothel
specifically designed for this purpose, and the largest of the some 25
brothels of the city; the other brothels were simply single rooms or part of
the top floor of a shop. The stone beds at the Lupanare were covered by
mattresses. The walls were decorated with paintings depicting different
erotic positions. The prostitutes were slaves, mostly of Greek and Oriental
Pompeii's Great Theatre was built in the 2nd century BC. It could hold some
5000 spectators. Among the works performed here were popular farces in the
Oscan language, plays, mimes and pantomimes with dancing and music. The
Small Theatre was built around 80 BC, in the early years of the Sullan
colony. According to inscriptions, it had a roof and was probably used for
musical performances and poetry readings.
The Temple of Isis testifies to the fact that Egyptian divinities were
venerated by the Romans too. It was built at the 2nd century BC and rebuilt
immediately after the earthquake in 62 AD by N. Popidius Ampliatus, who gave
credit to his son Celsinus to advance the latter's political career. Statues
of Anubis and Harpokrates greeted the visitors near the entrance of the
temple. A fenced area with a water basin was used for purification rites (purgatorium).
In addition to the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Ercolano, don't miss
to visit the Museum of Archaeology of the City of Naples, where
most of the finds of Pompeii and Ercolano are exhibited.