March 9th, 2006


pompei: dude, there's a tree in your living room

The first thing I noticed about Pompeii was the location.

I don't know about you, but when I think "Pompeii" I used to think "ruined city at the base of a volcano" - not "ruined city at the base of a volcano surrounded by an active city that's essentially a suburb of Naples." Lo and behold, that's what Pompeii actually is. You can stand on any one of a dozen ancient city walls and gaze out upon the automobiles and pizza parlors. Welcome to civilization.

The second thing I noticed about Pompeii was the luxury.

Perhaps this was common to all Roman cities. I don't pretend to know. You walk into Pompeii and there's a giant temple. Turn the corner and you're standing in a huge plaza. Walk thirty feet and there's a bakery with solid marble counters.

Was marble expensive back then? Were marble counters a luxury or a necessity?

The entire city . . . perhaps it was ordinary by Roman standards. Perhaps these were conventional things that the everyday citizen lived with. But much of it was beautiful. Atriums, foyers, gardens. A enormous public bath, with art on every wall and skylights all over. (What's it like to rest in a hot tub with rain falling on you? I imagine people here can answer that, but it's not exactly common even now. Perhaps it was then.)

I may, of course, be entirely wrong on this. But you know how you can point to two neighborhoods, and say "these people consider themselves wealthy, and these people consider themselves poor" - even if the "poor" people actually had more raw money? How luxury and beauty is, in many ways, more subjective than objective?

Pompeii, I feel, considered themselves very, very rich.

The third thing I noticed was the sheer destruction.

Walls reduced from fifteen-foot barriers to foot-high mounds. Ceilings missing entirely. Rooms that must have once contained furniture, art, personal possesions, now reduced to bare cubes of rock with perhaps a single empty window shining on the moss.

All unmarked.

Do you have any idea how creepy it is to walk through unmarked empty rooms? Here is the room where a boy was born. Here he learned the family trade. Here he lost his virginity, here he got married, here his wife bore a boy, here he taught his son the trade and here he died.

Or was it over there?

No way to tell. No way to even know what the rooms were used for, without careful archaelogical study that I'm certainly not qualified for . . . perhaps not even then.

Some stone or metal tools. Grinding stones and poleaxes. Pottery . . . lots of pottery. Nothing else. Just empty rooms.

The fourth thing I noticed was the terror.

One day Pompeii had an earthquake. It damaged buildings, damaged infrastructure. It was a disaster. The population built temples to appease the gods they'd clearly slighted somehow. They begged for mercy. They started the long, slow process of rebuilding, which would have been a decades-long process.

Seventeen years later a nearby volcano exploded.

Seventeen years. Most of the citizens alive no doubt remembered the earthquake. All of them had certainly watched the rebuilding. And yet, here they were, about to be smited by a wave of superheated poisonous gas.

Their bodies left impressions in the ash, and the excavators would fill these with plaster. Which meant you could see what position people were in when the ash arrived.

Panic, some of them. Collapse, others. Sometimes terror.

One was clutching a dog. Family dog? Guard dog? I hope it brought him some comfort, I truly do.

The last thing I noticed was Pompeii's sheer age.

The volcano erupted two thousand years ago . . . but Pompeii itself was founded at least 2700 years ago. The streets are stone, and grooves are worn in the stone from years of carts. There are temples that would have been hundreds of years old, side by side with buildings completed mere decades before the end.

By our standards, Pompeii was old even before it was preserved in ash. Seven hundred years. Older than any city in America.

And in minutes, gone.

And now there's another city around it.