Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ancient Pompeii

     We've been in Sorrento for 3 days and are having a grand time!  Sorrento is a resort town on the Amalfi penninsula which is located in the southwest portion of Italy, in the ankle part of the boot.   We came from Naples but stopped in Pompeii to learn a little more history before we started our recess. :)

     Pompeii was fascinating!  My only wish was that we'd had more time to explore. Unfortunately, we left the camera in the car so we don't have too many pictures.

      Of course we all know that Pompeii was destroyed by 25ft of ash and rock after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD.  Excavation of the sight didn't begin until the 1700's and many of the relics are in a museum in Naples. Also, much of what historians know about the events of that day come from the letters written by a young boy, Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from across the bay.  Walking through the ruins, I was amazed at the ingenuity of ancient civilization. Pompeii was part of the Roman empire and a very important port city. Situated on the Bay of Naples, many supplies and trades were routed to Rome through both this city and Ostia Antica, which we visited earlier in our trip.  Pompeii was a thriving town before the eruption.  We didn't get to see everything, but here are some highlights:

      The ancient roads were built using rocks placed very close together with narrow sidewalks on each side.  Builders even placed small pieces of white quartz between the rocks to reflect moonlight and illuminate the street at night, so people could see where they were going.  As we walked along, we occasionally saw deep grooves cut in the rocks. These were built so carriages could ride smoothly down the streets.  The wheels of all carts in that era were built using standard measurements.  The distance between the two wheels equaled the width of two donkey behinds standing side by side, because, of course, donkeys pulled the carts. See? Even ancient Romans had to do math!!! The grooves in ancient roads were built to accommodate this distance, and even`today our railroad tracks are based on this standard.  Isn't that interesting?  Railroad tracks have their history in ancient Rome!
One of the main roads in Pompeii. If you look towards the center of the road just in line with the space between the crosswalks, you can see part of the grooves for the wagon wheels.

The crosswalk

    Also, with all those donkeys going up and down the streets you can imagine the mess that might have piled up.  The citizens of Pompeii didn't want to have to walk through that (who could blame them) so at street intersections they placed raised stones to serve as crosswalks.  It also protected their robes and sandals from getting wet during a storm because the streets flooded when it rained heavily.

     The people of Pompeii collected rainwater in large cisterns and built an ingenious set of pipes and aqueducts (water ways) to bring water to their bath houses and public drinking fountains.   In all of the Roman ruins we visited, the bath houses were huge and elaborately decorated.  They weren't just for bathing, that's where people went to socialize and hang out with friends.  In Pompeii, the houses included both a men's and women's sauna room, each built with a double wall and a fire pit under the floor.   The hot air from the fire circulated through the space between the two walls and heated the air in the sauna room.  They also had both hot water baths (similar to our hot tubs), cold water baths, and swimming pools. They could even get a relaxing massage. Could our modern day spa be a decendent of the ancient Roman bath house?  Hmm..maybe we aren't so different from the ancients after all.

     I will say though, thank goodness for the modern clothes washing machine!  In Pompeii, slaves did the laundry and used...this is icky...donkey urine to clean the clothes. The ammonia in urine is a natural whitening agent. The clothes were soaked in urine, rinsed several times, then hung over a fire that included sulfur to neutralize the ammonia.  They also added seeds from sweet smelling flowers like lavender, which scented the smoke. This, in turn, gave the clothes a much more appealing smell.  More interestingly, this is also the origin of perfume.  "Par" is the Latin word for through and "fumare" is Latin for smoke, or "through the smoke." Fascinating!!
One of the laundry tubs where slaves stomped the clothes clean using ammonia from animals.

     The people of Pompeii had all amenities we enjoy in our towns today.  The forum in the center of town was 2 levels full of shops that sold whatever people needed to buy.  I imagined it like our strip malls. However, my favorite shops were the snack bars on the side streets.  Yes, ancient Romans had snack bars where they could go to get a quick bite to eat. The shops were complete with a marble counter top where customers ordered a drink and food!  On a side note - A "bar" in Italy is not a drinking establishment.  It is a small shop where people can get a quick coffee and maybe a sandwich.  It's much like our coffee houses in the US, except here people stand by the counter and drink their coffee. Sitting at a table costs money. :) Also, they don't offer a "to go" cup. Pompeii had several hotels, expensive houses, small apartments, restaurants, an outdoor theater (which could be covered in case of heat or bad weather), and of course, a coliseum with assigned seating for watching games and special events.  There was even ancient graffiti inscribed on the walls! Jeez! Teenagers will be teenagers no matter which century they live in!
The living room of a very wealthy citizen.
This is the theater.  The white marble seats are original and have roman numbers inscribed on them for assigned seating.  

This is the entrance to the forum, or market place.  The pillars held a second story.
We are standing in the center of the forum. The space was a square with markets on the outside and a piazza in the center.   On the left you see 3 white pillars which held a second story of shops.  In the background you can see the famous volcano, Mt. Vesuvius.  

     I walked away from this tour with the realization that human beings really haven't changed all that much in 2000 years.  Yes, our technology has changed, but our basic human needs and desires, thoughts and feelings are still the same.  



  1. Really enjoyed reading about Pompeii. What a wonderful experience. Stay safe and will see you soon.


  2. They were amazing people who created by necessity very much like the Ancient Egyptians. I loved reading this section.