Walking with Ghosts – Pompeii
Vesuvius blew its top on the 24th August 79AD, burying the nearby town of Pompeii in nearly three metres of ash and pumice stone over the course of three days. Six feet of ash arrived on the first day, landing in the streets, getting pushed into the houses, burning hot. Some people ran for it after the first explosion, but some hid in their houses, covering their faces to avoid suffocation.
Pliny the Younger was an eyewitness, and wrote to his friend Tacitus that the plume erupting from Vesuvius looking like an umbrella pine. And here’s a picture of such a tree.
We had such a great experience with Monika Iris that we booked her friend Nicola to take us on a tour of Pompeii. He doesn’t appear to have a website, get in touch with me if you’d like a really well informed guide to the ruins who is good with kids. Because Pompeii is big and not terribly well signposted. You can stumble around with a guidebook, but it was so much better to have all of the details pointed out to us. Like the oldest of the stone, from the time of the Etruscans. And when the streets were put down they slope a little to one side and ran down the hill to carry away the city’s waste in the rain (before the Romans arrived and put in a sewage system). Having the waste in the streets meant that you’d get your sandals rather soiled if you crossed the street, so they put in pedestrian crossings.
There were grooves in the cobbled streets to accommodate the carts. The Romans were big fans of standardisation, cart wheels were about one hundred and thirty centimetres apart, as are these grooves.
And that, boys and girls, is the width eventually used for the first railway gauges, but possibly for the more mundane reason that most cart wheels were this far apart all over the world to accommodate a draught horse. Nicola also pointed out what looked like random stones to the side of streets which were actually used to mount your horse in case you weren’t one of those athletic types that ran out of your domus and leapt upon the beast’s back.
The husband and the Horror loved the theatres, the forum and the amphitheatres, the big open public spaces. The bathhouse was particularly impressive, having a stone roof it was well preserved when the ash came, filling up the space and supporting the roof rather than burning it away in the case of the wooden roofs. The Muffet loved the stray dogs.
What particularly touched me, and the Moose as it turns out, was a rich man’s villa. There was the huge entrance hall, with the mosaic floor and the frescoed walls. There were the marble legs of a table further back in the hall.
The table legs had the name of the original owner on them. He was one of the chaps that had a turn at stabbing Julius Caesar, he was subsequently exiled and all of his possessions put up for sale in Rome. It is assumed that this wealthy Pompeii merchant bought the table in that sale. His house was beautiful, with private quarters that included a garden, which has been recreated from the marks in the ground preserved by the ash, and his own set of hot and cold baths. There was a view from the back of his property across his own vineyard.
It’s a bit misty, but if you look hard you can see that he had a view of his own personal Mount Doom. As it turned out, he wasn’t burned and suffocated by the ash. He was killed when the weight of the ash broke his roof upon him. Here he still lies.
The history is right there, it’s all around you in a way that a museum can never convey. There were a whole lot of takeaway shops, with the kind of marble counter I’d rather like in my kitchen. I bet you didn’t have to be careful with this tabletop.
Most counters had holes in them in which were mounted terracotta vessels full of food and drink. We could even see a marble cash register, underneath this set of holes was a vessel containing small change.
Not all of the site has been excavated, Italy’s architects and conservators are flat out keeping up with what they’ve uncovered already. Most of the valuable stuff has been taken to the archaelogical museum in Napoli, and fair enough, there’s very little security at the site, you could even touch the frescoes if you were very crass. Here’s an edge of the excavation, the hillside is the actual ash from the eruption.
There was an earthquake in the region seventeen years before the eruption and you could see meticulous repairs to the cracks this produced in the walls.
Some people can’t take a hint.
So thanks, Nicola, for guiding us at this amazing site and for explaining to the Moose what laurel was used for.
Personally, I’d put it in the chicken soup. But that will have to wait until I get home.