Pompeii and the Explosion of Mount Vesuvius: “It was like lightning”

Pompeii, situated in southern Italy near Naples, has become instrumental to modern understanding of what life was like in the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. After the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, a nearby volcano, in AD 79, the entire town was covered by several metres of volcanic ash and pumice – and thus was perfectly preserved, providing a snapshot of what an affluent Roman town looked like in 79.

Now, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and attracts around 2.5 million visitors annually. With the entire town buried under so much rubble, the lack of air and moisture meant that there was incredibly little opportunity for anything to deteriorate significantly at all. Understandably, many of the structures have collapsed to varying degrees as a result of the volcanic eruption, but this has by no means had a grave impact on the archaeological analysis of the town. We have art from every medium remaining thanks to Pompeii – mosaics, sculpture and perhaps most importantly wall painting.

Wall painting was a valued element of Roman interior decoration, and over the last 2000 years the vast majority of Roman wall painting has been thoroughly destroyed. This is on account of a variety of reasons – poor preservation, but mainly because in areas that continued to be inhabited beyond the Roman Empire (most of the world, that is) people would tear down or refurbish old houses for their new ones. There are wall paintings that exist beyond Pompeii, but they are few and far between, meaning we are unable to work out any pattern in their development and any pattern in terms of trends.  In Pompeii, however, we have a fairly complete catalogue for what wall painting was like within a certain time period from the late Republic to the early Empire – allowing us to work out trends and better understand how the people of Pompeii wanted their guests to perceive them.

Beyond the phenomenal archaeological evidence that Pompeii has offered, it has been invaluable for historians in better understanding how life functioned in a Roman town, and how life worked for people across a variety of socioeconomic strata – to have the houses of the relatively poor intact to compare to those of the fantastically wealthy is an incredibly rare opportunity for those who study the ancient world.

It has also led to better understanding of how Latin as a language worked – the graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii indicates how people actually would speak to one another, and contains casual slang and wordplay that has been immensely instructive in our understanding of Vulgar Latin – a far cry from the heightened formality of language we see in the vast majority of Latin literature.

Pompeii was largely forgotten from AD 79 onwards, until it was systematically excavated in 1749. It is such a large project that excavations are still going on today, and even now, new objects and structures are still being found. The discovery, excavation and study of Pompeii was likely the biggest breakthrough ever to have happened in studying the Roman world – there is no other site that is so large, so untouched by posterity and so thoroughly well-preserved.

By Francesca,

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