Author: Aatmesh, Learner at The Integral School. A self directed learning project on Pompeii.
Pompeii is the name of an ancient Roman city-state, located on the coast of Italy and bordered by Mt. Vesuvius. The city is famous for being destroyed by a violent eruption in 79 AD. Today, the ruins of Pompeii are an attraction for historians, archaeologists and tourists, looking for a glimpse into ancient Roman life.
Pompeii was located in Campania (a region in southern Italy) and was founded in the 7th century BC by the Oscans. The Oscans were an Italic tribe that inhabited much of ancient Italy. Their rule came to an end when the Greeks realized the advantageous location of Pompeii. In the following centuries the Greeks and Etruscans occupied Pompeii, due to its location (near the coast and river, as well as fertile region). The rulers changed, rotating between Greeks and Etruscans until – toward the end of the 5th century BC – the Samnites seized control of Pompeii and the neighbouring villages of Herculaneum and Stabiae. Their rule lasted for close to a century, but came to an end when the Romans arrived (by the port) in 310 BC.
The Romans used the ports of Pompeii to trade and export items all over their empire. During this time they were allies of Pompeii and Campania. They did not rule or govern Pompeii, but they had an alliance of sorts. The Pompeians allowed the Romans to use their ports and in return received goods and protection from the Romans. This was until the year 89 BC, when the Italics rebelled against the Romans trying to drive them from their land. The rebellion was in vain as the Roman forces were superior. After successfully putting down the rebellion, the Romans assumed full and uninhibited control of Pompeii.
Prior to coming under Roman control, Pompeians had already been familiar with Roman culture due to trade and interactions between them. The change from being an ally of the Romans and a Roman city was drastic. Over the next few years, Pompeii became the ideal Roman city, the official language was Latin instead of Oscan, inhabitants began adopting Roman garb, behaviour and even worshipped Roman gods. The architecture and planning was redone with new villas, arenas and large baths being constructed in true Roman fashion. It was after the city was Romanized that the biggest changes occurred, in the nature of the city.
The city of Pompeii began to change once the Romans had taken control. At the ports, items such as olives, oils, fruits and even slaves were traded. Along with more trade, the location of Pompeii was put to further use. The city had a coastline and fertile volcanic soil, perfect for farming. A sea breeze from the ocean and montane weather from the mountain (volcano) offered dual weather choices as well. These conditions were considered (by the Romans) as perfect for a holiday location. Slowly, along with increasing trade, wealthy Romans began building holiday homes or villas in Pompeii. Farming also increased, with the cultivation of grapes for wines. The Romans also began building structures and buildings in Pompeii at around this time.
At first, construction was limited to amenities that were present in (almost) all Roman cities such as baths, but as more tourist arrived they built more facilities for enjoyment. The city had changed from only being a trading destination, to a vacation spot for the rich. Over the next few decades, the Romans improved Pompeii’s facilities (with regard to wealthy tourists) and constructed restaurants, large gaudy villas and stadiums. Slowly, more and more rich merchants began moving in and the city welcomed numerous people on holiday from Rome.
Social and economic life
The social life in Pompeii was very busy. There were celebrations and parties happening constantly. The economy was a dichotomy between the rich and the poor.
The upper classes lead lives of extravagance and pomp. They resided in their fancy three story villas with large courtyards (in true Roman fashion). Many of them possessed valuables such as golden bracelets, precious stone necklaces etc. which they flaunted in their recurring parties and gatherings. These valuables were often a result of trade as the city did not have many goldsmiths. At their gatherings, they gossipped, ate and drank. Their meals were made of the best ingredients the city had to offer and were eaten in their villas. The richest of the rich had enough money to dine at restaurants where they could recline and eat. These restaurants even had chutes to throw the leftovers down. Along with quality food they had quality bathrooms. A marble toilet was found in a villa and the rich enjoyed the most splendid of the bathing complexes. Most of the rich were Roman.
The middle classes of Pompeii lived in three story apartment. The ruins of these apartments can still be seen today. They mostly ate at ancient fast food joints, where one had to wait in line (in front of an oven), pay and receive food. These fast food joints had seating areas for the richer middle class citizens as well. Many of them worked under the merchants as movers or accountants, while the rest were entertainers (jugglers, singers dancers etc.). Their lives were plain in comparison to the rich and most of them were Italians.
A third of Pompeii’s population consisted of slaves, as after the rebellion in 89 BC many of the rebels were enslaved. These slaves worked for the rich, in their villas and bath houses. They tended to the horses and gardens too. These slaves lead lives of servitude. Although some of the slaves were Italian rebels (or their descendants), many of them were foreign and fought in arenas. Much like Roman gladiators they could fight their way out of slavery by winning a certain amount of matches.
The children and youth of Pompeii lead lives similar to children in other Roman cities. The male children of Pompeii went to school, did work for their parents, or just played in the streets. Education was not very expensive and most of the middle class children could afford it. A group of thirty or so students would be educated by a teacher in math, Latin and Greek. This was the basic education, later (if they wanted to become lawyers or architects) the children would have to hire a specialist teacher. The specialist teachers could only be afforded by the high classes and a couple of the middle class citizens. Some of the extremely wealthy children received their education elsewhere (like in Rome or a famous institution) as the quality of learning in Pompeii wasn’t considered the greatest. Girls were not forbidden from going to school, but most of them hung about their mothers learning to cook, clean and tend to the houses. The lower class children, both male and female children helped their family’s out in their daily errands and grew up into their father or mother’s occupation.
Before the eruption, Pompeii’s human population was around 15,000 – 20,000. Out of them, the three socioeconomic classes were distinct. The extremely wealthy, the middle class and the dirt poor.
Pompeii was not a very important city when it existed, but is famous for being destroyed and giving insights into ancient Roman and Italic culture. The destruction occurred when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in August 24th, 79 AD. Prior to this, Vesuvius had already erupted four times, one dating back to 1800 BC. These previous eruptions were larger and more destructive than the one at Pompeii.
A couple of years before the eruption, Pompeii received a few earthquakes and other seismic activity. The citizens were used to these earthquakes and did not know of the connection between eruptions and earthquakes. When the eruption began, it was seen as a minor pyrotechnic display from the mountain, with a some smoke and loud noise. A few hours later at around midday, the mountain erupted with full force. A large plume of smoke was seen, 43 kilometres in height accompanied by torrents of burning lava, fire and ash. The inhabitants of Pompeii now realized what was happening and began fleeing for cover. The power of the explosion is said to be 100,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, making it one of the top ten deadliest volcanic eruptions of all time.
In the following hours, the village of Herculaneum was all but destroyed and the city of Pompeii was covered in centimetres of dense, volcanic ash. For a half hour or so, the brunt of the explosion seemed over until another mushroom cloud, 9 kilometers higher than the previous one arose. Along with the cloud came even more amounts of lava and ash. The falling ash was as dense as stones and fell at a rate of 6 inches an hour. many structures and homes collapsed and the citizens were hiding in basements or underground chambers. During this time many people were still alive but hurt. Volcanic mud trapped the citizens inside the city where they were suffocated to death by being buried alive. By the next morning a wave of volcanic gases raced into Pompeii at 160 km/h, suddenly killing every living being that remained in the city. The lava destroyed the fertility of the lands and the ash killed the inhabitants. The total death toll (including Herculaneum and the neighboring villages) was 16,000 people.
Although there were so many deaths, some citizens managed to escape before the situation was perilous. The environment surrounding Pompeii was a deathtrap to life. The ash and debris polluted the air, lava was flowing freely, killing many of the escapees. Those that survived the environment and did not die from disease or wounds escaped by ships of the Roman fleet. The city was all but forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1755.
The city of Pompeii was destroyed, but many of its inhabitants and objects were preserved. This is due to the burning volcanic ash, which hardened and moulded onto the bodies of people and object in Pompeii. The ash did not dissolve with water and while the bodies decayed, their outline or shape was preserved by the ash.
A mother holding her child, a dog and a man fleeing have all been hardened in ash. It is thanks to this ash that historians can glean information about the culture and environment of Pompeii and Roman life. One such instance is the finding of a horde of jewels and valuables in a cave (thanks to a very rich woman), that were hidden underground. A few paintings and scripts were also discovered. Many Roman artefacts were also discovered during the excavation of Pompeii, such as goblets, rings etc. thanks to the ash.
The city of Pompeii may not have had a great impact on history if not for the fact that it was destroyed, and preserved in its destruction.
An essay by Aatmesh