Saturday, 3 August 2013

Ruins of Pompeii

1,934 years ago, somewhat to the day (it was August), Mt Vesuvius spewed millions of tons of molten lava down its steep slopes, burying the nearby Roman town of Pompeii, killing about 2,000 people, and preserving for the future the best insights into the daily life of ancient Roman civilisation.  We toured the ruins over five hours today from around 10 to just after 3 pm.  

You're instantly struck, when entering Pompeii, by the sheer scale of the disaster, and through the coming hours it seems endless.  Just devastation everywhere.  Preservation, yes.  But devastation of a community that once thrived.  Every house, every street, every building, and every business was covered by thick layers of lava simultaneously, and, apart from those who managed to escape, every man, woman and child and animal perished together.  For them, it was the end of the world.  And from various vantage points all around Pompeii, there is Mt Vesuvius lingering in the background, looking for all the world like a murderer who remains at the crime scene.

Our impressions of what we saw?  We don't believe that chariots or anything similar would have driven along Pompeii's streets, but perhaps labourers and merchants pushed carts along them.  The streets, lined with slabs of rock, are anything but smooth.  There are footpaths, raised above the street like modern footpaths, and one on each side.  Occasionally, in the street itself, there are stepping stones, so pedestrians could reach the opposite footpath without stepping foot on the street (not sure why).  Near the basilica, we heard someone mention the little white rocks between the street slabs.  They were meant to serve the purpose of modern 'cats eyes', and provide reflecting light.  I was impressed with the basilica, and its Corinthian columns, and we could appreciate that the basilica once looked similar inside to today's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Notre Dame in Paris.

Near the basilica is the forum, damaged in an earthquake in 63 AD, and not fully repaired at the time of the disaster in 79 AD.  The forum was the equivalent of the local town square, where everyone met, business people, the wealthy, and ordinary folk.  You had an idea of how it once looked, with its few columns supporting beams and other columns on top.  We strolled past the Temple of Jupiter, and followed a map.  Everywhere you looked, a photo was waiting to be taken.  We saw exposed walls, gardens, pots, things with holes that may have been used for toilets or for putting pots in, or for some other purpose.  We went inside very intact dwellings, such as the bathhouse.  The bathhouse was only discovered in the 1980s.  From my last visit here in December 1983, I don't recall seeing it before.  The bathhouse contains an indoor waterfall and very good frescoes on the walls.  We also saw the thermal baths near the forum, also reasonably intact buildings.

Speaking of water, at least 40 drinking fountains were found in Pompeii, all in use today.  Each fountain bears a different carving, say of a bird or other animal.  This was to aid the ancients in finding their way around the city.

We had hoped to see the House of the Gilded Cupids and the House of the Vetti, but these were gated off, preventing entry.  But we did see the House of the Tragic Poet, minus the mosaic the house is named after (it's now in a museum).  And we saw the House of the Faun, named after the diminutive bronze statue of the dancing faun near the front of the house.  The house is large; it has four dining rooms, and two large square gardens.

We saw the amphitheatre from the outside.  You couldn't go in.  But the amphitheatre is an impressive, solid structure.  We briefly visited the Villa of Mysteries.  It contains the best frescoes.  But we ended up not seeing much of these.

We also saw a couple of victims from the disaster.  Petrified bodies lay not far from the forum, and there are a couple more elsewhere.  They're fascinating, and look like they're made of stone.  In fact, the word 'fascinating' was never very far from my lips throughout the whole tour of Pompeii.

Pompeii also had a brothel.  The building is quite intact.  A small erection, it has five little rooms with a bed in each (of stone).  A toilet is adjacent to the rooms.  Above each bedroom is an erotic painting, each different from the others, showing a raunchy sex scene (see an example below).  Pompeii's brothel is proof that the oldest profession in the world is at least 2,000 years old.  There seems to be no proof, however, that any couple was actually 'at it' when the catastrophe struck.

Bizarrely, Pompeii has a stray dog problem, and we saw a few of these.  People are warned not to go near them.

Lastly, a word about Vesuvias.  Vesuvias is no extinct volcano.  It last erupted in 1944, but they say a big eruption, like that of 79 AD or 1780 BC, is overdue.  It has erupted no fewer than 50 times in its history. They also say Vesuvias is the most dangerous volcano in Europe.  And three million people live at its base.

The basilica
Looking from the basilica toward the forum
Examples of frescoes seen at Pompeii
The thermal baths near the forum
An arch
The House of the Faun
A petrified victim of the disaster
An actual person, died in tragedy but immortalised for our benefit
An engraving in a house
One of the brothel's bedrooms
An erotic painting from the brothel
A scene in Pompeii.
The amphitheatre
A petrified window shutter
Jean at the edge of the forum
In the background is the culprit: a sobering reminder it will happen again

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