One of history’s great ironies is that Pompeii only became famous by first being destroyed. The AD 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius buried the bustling Roman resort city in a layer of ash and sediment. Bad news for its residents but the cataclysm had the unexpected silver lining of preserving the city basically in its entirety for nearly 2,000 years. While many of the empire’s greatest city’s fell into ruin or were recycled into new developments, Pompeii sat “protected” in its natural time capsule until being rediscovered in 1748. To this day, its ruler-straight streets, empty homes, and vacant storefronts remain one of the greatest and most poignant records we have of ancient Roman culture.
Visiting Pompeii: What to See
If you want to fully grasp the size and power of the cataclysm that wiped Pompeii from the map you have to start with a visit to the volcano whose eruptions have defined the history and culture of the entire region. Although the AD 79 eruption was certainly Vesuvius’ most famous, it was by no means the only one, or even its largest. A 1780 BC eruption, for instance, destroyed everything within a 15-mile radius of the mountain. On two separate occasions ash from Vesuvius’ eruptions has fallen as far away as present-day Istanbul (a distance of 750 miles). The Volcano last erupted in 1944 and it is now monitored by volcanologists every day to make sure that a large scale event never takes local residents off guard again. Taking a trip up the mountain to see the crater and enjoy jaw-dropping views of the Bay of Naples will give you a unique perspective on one of history’s greatest disasters and allow you appreciate the immense forces that dwell beneath the earth.
Plaster Death Casts
Of the estimated 20,000 people living in an around Pompeii at the time of the eruption, only around 2,000 perished in the city. The majority fled at the first sign of trouble. But those who stayed and suffered cruel deaths under clouds of ash have become important, and heart-wrenching reminders of the humans who once called Pompeii home. In another great irony, the indelible images of their bodies that we see today were only made possible by the manner of their deaths. After being covered by the ash and sediment that entombed Pompeii, the bodies slowly decayed and left people-shaped impression under the earth. When archaeologists were excavating Pompeii in the 1800s they realized that if they poured plaster into these impressions it would harden into the shape of the body that had once occupied the space. Thus they brought the dead back into the light with startling detail. From the contorted position of their agony-stricken bodies and the grimaces on their faces to the very clothes they were wearing, the death casts capture the very human details of the disaster.
The Thermopolia, aka Roman Fast Food
It’s a common misconception that eating out is a particularly modern vice. But in this, as in so many other areas, the ancient Romans beat us to it. Pompeii is full of thermopolia, which were little shops lined with counters fitted with circular holes. A pan or basin could be fitted over each hole and a fire lit beneath it to cook food or just keep it warm. With over 100 thermopolia discovered in the ruins, it’s believed that most of the residents of Pompeii habitually ate outside their homes.
The Red Light District
Although probably not, as Kipling once claimed, the “oldest profession in the world” prostitution was a thriving industry in ancient Rome. The ruins of Pompeii attest to this fact with their very own red light district. Now, you may be wondering how archaeologists determined which buildings were used to sell sex and which were simply stores or dwellings. The answer is that they were very clearly marked. Not only are there stone signs with arrow-like phalluses leading the way to this part of town, there is also a well-preserved brothel or lupanare that still has ancient, pornographic mosaics of the sexual positions that were on offer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the brothel is thought to be the most-visited attraction in Pompeii.
What you can see in Pompeii today is only a fraction of the risque imagery that was excavated from the ruins. Although some of the pieces – including mosaics, statues, stone reliefs and oil lamps, among other things – ended up in private collections, many eventually found their way to the “Gabinetto Segreto” collection of the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. The entire collection was famously closed to the general public in 1849 and not reopened until 2000. For many years the mosaics in Pompeii were also covered over with shudders and only men were allowed to see them. Today, if you can find your way to the red light district you can enjoy all the dirty mosaics you can handle. Just follow the phalluses.
The House of the Tragic Poet
This villa is one of the best-preserved in Pompeii and contains a horde of stunning mosaics. Perhaps the most famous depicts a dog above the words “Cave Canem”, literally, “Beware of the Dog”.
Because of its pristine condition and beautiful interior decorations, this is perhaps the most famous dwelling in Pompeii. It tends to come up in poetry and literature, including, most famously The Last Days of Pompeii, a book written by Lord Edward Bulwer Lytton after he visited the ruins on his grand tour in the 19th century. The eponymous “tragic poet” actually has little or no connection to the house. Archaeologists came up with the name because one of the most striking mosaics features a theatre scene with an actor, or “tragic poet” as its focal point.
The Roman Baths or Stabian Baths
Public baths were one of the most impressive and forward-thinking innovations of the Roman empire. They were often huge complexes, roughly analogous to today’s health spas, where you could go to swim, socialize, get health treatments or haircuts, soak in heated tubs of various temperatures, and even work out. The Stabian Baths in Pompeii feature vaulted rooms bursting with beautiful decorations.
The Amphitheater and Theater of Pompeii
Pompeii’s amphitheater is not as large as Rome’s Colosseum but it’s 150 years older. This makes it the oldest surviving amphitheatre in the world. For much of its history it hosted gladiator matches, however, the records show that a brawl among fans in AD 59 caused organizers to suspend the games for a whopping 10 years. It must have been quite a brawl.
The Theatre of Pompeii is much smaller than the amphitheater but is much closer to the rest of the city and therefore easier to visit. It was used to host drama and musical performances. You can confirm this fact for yourself by finding the exact spot on the stage that has perfect acoustics, meaning you can hear someone speaking or singing from that point equally well from any seat in the theatre.
The Villa of the Mysteries
This well-preserved, suburban villa features a gorgeous fresco that has mostly defied any attempts at rational interpretation. It features a young woman, satyrs, nymphs, gods, and a bit of ritual whipping for good measure. The theory that currently carries the most weight is that it depicts some sort of initiation ceremony, perhaps into one of the Rome’s many mystery cults. Whatever the case may be, it’s one of the most impressive early frescoes in the world and a must-see if the villa is open.
Tips for Visiting Pompeii
Pompeii opening times differ between the high season and low season. During the high season – April 1st through October 31st – the ruins are open every day from 8.30am to 7.30pm with last tickets sold at 6.00pm. During the low season – November 1st through March 31st, – the ruins are open from 7:30am until 5.00pm with the last entrance granted at 3.30pm.
Pompeii tickets are valid for a full day and cost €20.50. They tend to sell out a few days in advance so be sure to book them online well before you plan to visit. Many visitors go with guided tours like the Walks of Italy Pompeii Tour from Rome with Amalfi Coast Drive.
Like most of the attractions in Italy, you are not allowed to bring large bags with you into Pompeii. There is no coat-check outside the security gates, so leave anything larger than a purse or backpack in your car or tour bus.
There are no plaques or visual aids to explain any of the ruins in Pompeii. For this reason many people visit with guided tours or private guides. There are always plenty of guides offering their services outside the gates but the quality of the experiences they offer varies greatly. If you want a guide it’s best to book with a trusted tour company in advance.
Getting to Pompeii
How to get to Pompeii is one of the questions we are asked the most at Walks of Italy. Driving from Rome to Pompeii is doable (as our tour attests) but it’s much nicer if you have someone driving you. If you do it yourself its a very long day. The ruins are easily reached from Naples but many visitors forgo this amazing (and yes, sometimes gritty) city to stay on the Amalfi Coast. Driving to Pompeii from the Amalfi Coast isn’t difficult as long as you leave first thing in the morning to avoid the traffic that plagues the roads, especially in the high season.
The Best Time to Visit Pompeii
When you visit Pompeii there are two main factors to consider: Weather and crowds. Crowds tend to be worse in the mornings when most of the tour buses show up and disgorge their occupants. On the other hand, afternoons are much hotter and if you go in July or August you will most certainly do a bit of baking under the Italian sun, especially because the ruins offer very little shade. Considering these facts, optimal visiting times are spring and fall afternoons. Winter can also provide beautiful clear days, although you run more of a risk of getting rain. Regardless of when you go, remember that Pompeii is one of the most popular attractions in Italy, if not all of Europe, so there are crowds throughout the year. The good news is that there is literally an entire city to visit so there is plenty of room to explore your own little corner of it.
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