A Day in Pompeii

It began at about 9am. The lines were long and the day was already hot and sticky. It was going to be an arduous day, and I wondered if it was going to be worth it. Pompeii is one of the biggest tourist sites in Italy, and it seemed impossible that I would be able to really experience it when I was lost in thick swarms of sweaty tourists.

I stared in dismay at the lines, but was somewhat confident in the ability of our tour leaders to somehow magically get us into Pompeii without too much trouble. The air was thick and heavy, even though it was early in the day, and the sound of cicadas in the trees were overwhelmingly loud.

Somehow, we managed to get past the lines and were finally inside Pompeii proper. The world was suddenly transformed from the modern to the ancient, though a very decayed ancient world.

(Not all of these pictures are mine, some were taken by one of the other students on the tour.)


We ventured inside a few steps, and our tour leaders spoke in rapid Italian with an attendant in uniform, who opened a gate for us and allowed us access to a place that most tourists aren’t allowed: the suburban baths. The professors had special access to this place, which is considered unsafe and is kept closed to the public. It is still an active site, and there was plenty of evidence of the ongoing dig all throughout it. Yet, this place was eerily attractive for its strange wholeness. Most of the things I had already seen were broken, and I was growing weary of seeing nothing but broken things. Yet this place still had its roof, and more than mere traces of its former richness. This was a place for the well-to-do; where wealthy young men would spend a hot afternoon, enjoying the various amenities of the Roman bathhouse. They could enjoy all this surrounded by lavish and bright mosaic, complex fresco, and beautiful open windows.

It was cool and dark here, and many of the frescoes and mosaics were undergoing restoration. There were wooden walkways built between the rooms, covering up deep, dangerous-looking holes where archaeologists were looking for the hypocausts and whatever else may lay underneath.

In this place, we dwelt upon the tragedy of Pompeii, in considering the completeness of its destruction. It was buried in 79 AD, and very few people seemed to remember its existence. Some people went back later to try to see what was left, but it was not really known until the Bourbon Kings discovered it, and subsequently forced prisoners and asylum inmates to dig it up for the previous artifacts hidden in the deep layers of pumice.

Once out of the suburban baths, I got a small taste of what it might have been like back in its heyday. It was crowded with moderns, taking pictures and peering into corners or crowding into the shade. I didn’t find it terribly difficult to simply imagine that they were Romans going about their daily business. I could almost imagine the buildings whole and new again, thriving and filled with life.

Below is a picture of what modern artists have to contribute to Pompeii, here in the Forum. A modern statue of a centaur stands proudly in the center of the Forum, which is a wide open,  sociable sort of space. You can imagine it being filled with merchant stalls, or young people spending their afternoon. I could only indulge in these little fantasies for so long before I was reminded of how broken everything was. Once again, I felt weary of seeing so many broken things.


Wending a little deeper into the city, one finds the old Temple of Isis. There was a recording of exotic sounding music, meant to give visitors a small taste of what it might have been like. I imagine it would have been dark, and deep red, and filled with the smoke of incense and sacrifice, and mysterious. It is now just a half-ruined foundation, like all the others, though slightly more ornate.

The amphitheater of Pompeii, next to the place where gladiators and athletes would train and spend their time.

Most of what survives from the classical world is the possessions of the 1% of society, since they are the only ones who can possess anything that is likely to last. Pompeii is a rare exception to that; here we can see how perfectly ordinary people might have lived. In stark contrast to that way of life, we found several of the opulent houses belonging to rich residents of Pompeii. Below is the house of Gulia Felix, a wealthy freewoman who possibly owned her own business of some kind. Her house was structured around business. The back was very much like an ordinary Roman house with a bright, well-tended garden and cool, shady colonnades. There were ornately tiled rooms all along the colonnades as well, which were certainly for bedrooms or the like. The front of her house, however, faced one of the ordinary streets and was certainly where her business took place. There is apparently evidence that this woman owned it outright on her own, which was unusual for that society.



The most arresting moment was being able to see the cast victims of the eruption, which are kept in display cases near where they were originally found. There is one case of the “Garden of the Refugees” that contains 9 bodies kept in a case so that irreverent onlookers do not destroy the bodies. In that place, the horror of being suffocated to death in a natural disaster hits home for many. That garden is silent, even with many people in it. There is reverence still for the dead there, whose bodies have been placed on display for the horror of modern visitors.

The pictures below are actually from the Villa of the Mysteries, where they were originally found; perhaps the servants of the master, who were unable to escape. We have no idea.

The final site of the day was the Villa of the Mysteries. It is aptly named. This villa is outside of the city walls, which is unusual. It is vast and opulent, and likely belonged to someone of excellent taste, but was perhaps peculiar in his social habits. He wanted to be associated with the city, but somehow separate. He had enormous amounts of money to spend on what may have been a mere vacation home. I imagine he may have thrown lavish parties to show off the gorgeous and expensive murals. His guests might have wandering through, awestruck, because they themselves might have been well-off but this was true opulence.

One of the rooms, probably the dining room, depicts the entire process of a marriage, from the initial courting to the moment the bride is preparing to be married, a pretty young girl in a bright yellow dress (traditional Roman wedding dresses were bright yellow). Other interpretations of the paintings suggest that they are depictions of initiation into cults. There are places elsewhere that are clearly Bacchic Maenads. However, I believe that there is more to suggest that it is a young woman preparing for marriage. It is also possible that someone who belonged to one of these cults lived here. This is partly why it is called the Villa of the Mysteries. So little is known.

I like to think that it was owned by a rich, well-educated bachelor with very wide knowledge of the world; who may have been a thoughtful sort of man who liked to linger in his garden with his scrolls.

I have many more photos, but I’ll conclude this post with these from the Villa of the Mysteries:



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