History, facts and travel tips about Pompeii
The origins of Pompeii are old as the history of Rome. Pompeian people came from an ancient Italic population: the Osci. In the second half of 7th century BC, an early village was settled on the site where Pompeii would eventually emerge: it was strategically established at the intersection of three major roads. Pompeii quickly became a crossing point between the North and the South and a main trade and travel hub, but consequently an aimed prey for its powerful neighbors.
The city had a rather eventful history: it was first conquered by the Greek Colony of Cumae, then by the Etruscans, going finally back under the heel of the Greeks.
The first urban settlement dates back to the 4th century, when Pompeii was involved in the Samnite Wars and forced to accept an alliance with Rome but managing to keep their autonomy for language and institutions.
During the 2nd century BC, thanks to extensive cultivation and prodigious wine and oil exports, the city became really prosperous so that wealth gave rise to some of the most sumptuous residences in Pompeii, equal to the most famous royal dwellings from the Hellenistic period.
In 91 BC, during the Social War (91-88 BC), Pompeii allied with several cities of Campania against Rome with the aim to achieve full Roman citizenship. Unfortunately any attempt to defy Sulla was a wild-goose-chase and the city fell down almost immediately; in 80 BC, it was totally drawn into the sphere of influence of Rome. Sulla moved there a colony of veterans naming it “Colonia Venerea Pompeianorum Sillana”; people who had fought against Rome were expropriated from their land, which was then given to veterans.
In spite of military downturns, Pompeii’s wealth and especially its commercial entrepreneurship (mostly involved in exporting wines from Campania) was left intact.
Because of the salubrious climate and the agreeable landscape, the city and its surroundings became a pleasant vacation destination for rich Roman people. Among them there was Cicero himself, who owned a plot of land in Pompeii and actually didn’t dislike spending time in that lovely place.
Houses in Pompeii became famous also for their valued and unique decoration, so much so that between 2nd Century BC and 79 AD Pompeii developed its own style which came to be widely imitated, even in Rome.
Several painting techniques were used to decorate walls: frescos (pigments mixed with water on wet plaster), tempera (pigments mixed with a glutinous binder such as egg yolk or wax), encaustic painting (pigments mixed with wax). Pompeii painting has been subdivided into four styles based on Vitruvius’ treatise on painting in De Architectura.
The First style used in some houses consists of stucco reliefs, mostly red or black, but also purple, yellow-green pigments imitating marble.
The Second style consists of frames and decorations along with painted foliage to create a “trompe l’oeil” effect, giving the illusion of shadow and depth; false colonnades and doorways are depicted opening onto perspectival paintings representing gardens in the foreground. It was a very popular style with customers of the age. Still lives portraying fowls, fruit and vegetables were also very popular.
The Third Pompeian Style is a "decorative style" and completely overturned perspective and three-dimensionality which characterized the previous style. It used flat, dark colors resembling curtains and tapestry and painted scenes in small floating panels in the middle.
The Fourth Style is distinguishable by its fictional architectures using perspective illusion, and has strong theatrical features. It mixes decorative motifs from the previous styles, such as imitation of marble, trompe-l'oeil, chandeliers, winged figures and foliage. It was used to decorate most of the villas in Pompeii when the city was rebuilt after the catastrophic earthquake on February 5th in 62 AD.
On the morning of August 24th in 79 AD, when Pompeii people -unaware the time was about to stop- directed their gaze to the sky, they saw an ominous, dark, pine-shaped cloud hanging over the Vesuvius. At 10 in the morning, gases pressing from inside the volcano exploded, bursting the consolidated lava obstructing the crater and pulverized it: the power of the volcano covered Pompeii in lapilli (solidified fragment of lava) and a torrent of thick ashes obscured the sun.
A violent earthquake and deadly gas fumes buried the city under more than 6 meters of ashes and lapilli. At least 2,000 of the approximately 10,000 inhabitants were killed; some poisoned by gases while attempting to flee, others in their own homes, crushed by roofs collapsing under the weight of the volcanic material.
People in Pompeii could not imagine their daily life was going to be frozen in time, preserved thanks to the material spewed out of Vesuvius and the entire city was going to be rediscovered, centuries later, telling the story of the day when a volcano stopped the time.
The city was almost completely forgotten until the end of 16th Century, when Domenico Fontana, an italian architect, overseeing the construction of a canal for the Sarno River, found inscriptions and buildings decorated with frescos. Fontana, however, did not realize he had just discovered the remains of ancient Pompeii.
Today, the city is almost entirely visible bringing back visitors to the fateful day in 79 AD. The city looks like its life was interrupted just moments ago. Political campaign slogans on the walls, home furnitures, shops, everything looks alive, as it was at the moment of the eruption.
The city is transected by the majestic Via dell’Abbondanza, the central axis that corresponds to the lower decumanus. Starting at the Forum and continuing to the Porta Sarno, it is named after the beautiful fountain decorated by a bas-relief portraying “Abundance” as a woman holding a cornucopia. The street is 600 meters long and still today is a living and vibrant portrait of the city’s most important commercial street. Inscriptions painted on the plaster can also be found there, as the most eloquent record of city life.
Via della Fortuna (named after the temple of Fortune) was the decumanus maximus and crosses the city from East to West.