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Pompeii ruins near Naples, Italy

The modern city of Pompei, spelled with one "i", surrounds the ancient Roman city of Pompeii that was buried by volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Modern Pompei was founded in 1891 through the efforts of Bartolo Longo, a lawyer who visited Pompei when it was a small village. Early in his life, Longo was a satanic priest, but he converted to Catholicism and renounced spiritualism.

Pompei Rail Station
Pompei Rail Station

In 1875, Bartolo Longo placed a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary in a small church in Pompei. People started reporting miracles, and church attendance increased dramatically. The small church was replaced with a larger church. The cornerstone for the large cathedral called the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei was laid in 1876 and the church was consecrated in 1891.

Pompei bell tower
Pompei bell tower

The bell tower, which has a height of 260 feet (80 meters), was built between 1912 and 1925. The sanctuary of the church was expanded between 1934 and 1939 to accommodate up to 6,000 people.

 Shrine of Our Lady of Pompei
Shrine of Our Lady of Pompei

The church faces Pompei's main square. The modern city has a population of over 25,000 people, and it is served by two railroad lines. The nearest airport is in Naples, 28 kilometers (17 miles) away. A rail trip between Pompei and Naples takes about one hour because there are numerous stops.

The economy of modern Pompei is based on tourist traffic to the excavations of the ancient Roman city and pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompei. There are many hotels in the city, and new ones are under construction. Pompei has some supermarkets that are open 24 hours per day, and there is a large shopping mall called "La Cartiera". The downtown area has numerous restaurants with regional Italian specialties, such as Neapolitan pizza and delicious puff pastries called sfogliatelle with different types of fillings.

Neapolitan Pizza
Neapolitan Pizza

The Roman City of Pompeii

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius that devastated the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii is known in great detail because Pliny the Younger, at age 17, witnessed the eruption from across the Bay of Naples and wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus. Scholars knew the story of Pompeii, but the exact location of the city remained unknown until the 16th century when the ruins were discovered during the construction of a canal from the River Sarno.

body casts at the location where they were found
Body casts made in 1914 in a garden of an upper class house

The excavation of Pompeii began in 1748 and continues until the present time. In 1860, Giuseppe Fiorelli became the director in charge of excavation and he established a program to preserve the architecture and the artifacts of Pompeii as much as possible. When hollow cavities were found around the skeletons, Fiorelli instructed the diggers to pour plaster into the cavities to form casts of the bodies that had previously occupied the space. The casts show the final moments of agony of the perishing Pompeiians.

Body casts at the entrance of the Pompeii excavations
Display of body casts at the entrance of the Pompeii excavations

More than one thousand body casts have been made in the ash deposits around Pompeii. The positions of the people indicate that they were killed almost instantly by the heat shock of a pyroclastic surge of volcanic ash and gas at temperatures of 300 °C (572 °F).

A visit to Pompeii gives us a glimpse about how Romans lived approximately 2100 years ago. They had an advanced culture with many of the conveniences of modern life, but their system of waste disposal would have seemed primitive and smelly by our standards.

Pompeii Amphitheater
Pompeii Amphitheater Exterior

Romans liked gladiatorial games and spectacles that attracted large crowds. The amphitheater of Pompeii was built in 80 BC and had a seating capacity of about 20,000. The amphitheater survived because it was built entirely of stone.

Amphitheater seats
Amphitheater seats

The amphitheater is used as a venue for modern concerts. Elton John performed here in July 2016.

Pompeii Baths
Courtyard of Pompeiian Baths

Baths were part of the daily life in Roman cities. The courtyards and gymnasiums were used for exercise, followed by baths at different temperatures. The baths also were gathering places to meet friends and share information.

Pompeii Baths (women)
Women's section of the Pompeiian baths

The baths in Pompeii had chambers heated to different temperatures. The public baths at Pompeii contain two tepidariums (warm baths), two caldariums (hot baths), a cold pool and a large exercise area.

Pompeii's forum
Pompeii's forum with Mount Vesuvius in the background

The forum was a public square used as a marketplace for selling goods. The Pompeii forum was rectangular and paved in travertine, a light-colored limestone deposited by mineral springs. The forum was surrounded by a covered arcade on three sides. Most of the paving stones are missing. A guide mentioned that they were probably looted during the chaos that ensued at the time of the volcanic eruption.

Sculpture in Pompeii's forum
Sculpture in Pompeii's forum

Thirty colossal classical sculptures by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj (March 26, 1944 – October 6, 2014) are displayed throughout the dramatic landscape of Pompeii. They will be on view until January 2017.


Romans had monuments to the dead in the same way in which we have memorials in our cemeteries. Only the dead of the very rich could be honored in this manner.

Pompeiian restaurant
Pompeiian restaurant (Thermopolium of Asellina)

This restaurant has a cement counter covered with embedded marble tiles that incorporate terracota receptacles called dolia which are still intact. The far wall has a painted shrine in the shape of a little temple with images of the Roman deities Mercury (god of commerce) and Bacchus (god of wine). The wall on the left still conserves some of the plaster with the paintings that adorned the room.

Pompeiian houses of the rich
Pompeiian houses of the rich

The ruins of Pompeii show that the rich people lived very well. Two-story houses had courtyards with fountains and sheds where they kept their horses.

Wall paintings
Wall paintings

Earthquakes were common around Pompeii. Many of the houses show repairs to cover cracks that resulted from the tremors. The Pompeiians had interior courtyards with roofs inclined inward to collect rain water in a pool in the atrium. The mosaic floors were also slightly inclined toward the central pool. The stone walls were covered with plaster painted with deities to protect and bring prosperity to the residents.

House of Octavius Quartio
House of Octavius Quartio

The house of Octavius Quartio was authenticated through a seal ring found during excavations between 1916 and 1921. The house was built in the second century BC and underwent changes and extensions until it almost occupied the whole block.

Garden of Octavius Quartio
Garden of Octavius Quartio

The wooden structures, such as trellises, were burned during the volcanic eruption. Only the stone columns remain to give us a hint of how beautiful this garden was in Roman times.

Access to water was very important for Roman cities. Aqueducts brought water from higher elevations, and this made it possible to distribute the water throughout the city by channels or lead pipes.

A street in Pompeii
A street in Pompeii

The streets in Pompeii were paved with cobble stones and bordered by sidewalks along both sides of the street. The center of the street was slightly more elevated than the sections along the sidewalks to channel rain water and waste water away from the center of the road.

Pedestrian crosswalk
Pedestrian crosswalk

The streets of Roman cities were polluted with animal waste from horses that pulled the carts along the streets and human waste flushed from the houses. The stepping stone crosswalks allowed people to cross the street without getting their feet wet. The height and spacing of the stepping stones allowed carts to pass along the street. The paving stones show grooves from the wear of the constant traffic.

Street fountain in Pompeii
Street fountain in Pompeii

Pompeii had fountains every few blocks along the major roads. Each fountain had a unique stone carving. The fountain in the picture above has the head of a cow. These images were used for directions, such as: "Go to the shop two houses down from the cow fountain."

Much of what we know about daily Roman life has been learned from study of the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which was another city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Visit Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum
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© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora

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