I once spent two summers digging in Pompeii as an archaeologist. Pompeii is unique among all ancient sites. After the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the city was buried in layers of ash that preserved it perfectly until its discovery nearly 1700 years later.
Visitors to the site can see beautiful paintings, as vividly colourful as they were to the Romans; a loaf of bread that was left in the oven; even the bodies of the tragic victims who did not escape the eruption. Pompeii is like a time capsule from the past, bringing to life an ancient city in all its shabby glory, taking us closer to the world of the Romans than we’ve ever been before.
There’s something about Pompeii that captures the imagination in a way nowhere else in the ancient world does. As participants of the dig, we were allowed to enter the site a full hour before the tourists did. I used to take advantage of that hour when I had the city to myself to explore the deserted streets and empty houses of Pompeii, and to imagine how it must have been to live there, two thousand years ago.
So, this week, I’m going to give you my guided walking tour to Pompeii.
Before we begin, though, I’m going to send you back two thousand years, to the year 75 CE. You are a Roman merchant who has come to Pompeii hoping to buy some of Pompeii’s famous fish sauce so you can sell it back in Rome (hopefully for a big fat profit). You’ve had an easy journey down the coast of Italy from Rome, following the shoreline until you reached the beautiful Bay of Naples with its sparkling blue sea, colonnaded villas nestled around the bay and pleasure yachts cruising the waters. You marvelled at the gigantic mountain, Vesuvius, that towers over it all, with its slopes covered in vineyards and its peak stretching up to the sky – the tallest mountain you’ve ever seen. At the mouth of the river Sarno your ship continues its journey inland towards the southern slopes of Vesuvius, until, at last, you reach a busy port full of bustling merchants, boats large and small jostling to get their place in the dock.
You have arrived in Pompeii.
The modern city of Sorrento, just down the coast from ancient Pompeii
“Move out the way, move out the way.”
You can hear a strident voice calling over the noise of the seagulls and the cries of sailors and chattering merchants. You look up. A large, portly man with a big belly and a sunburned face is pushing his way through the crowds, gesturing to you.
“You – over there!” he shouts, gesturing again. “Come on up here!”
He holds out a large hand and pulls you out of your ship onto the quayside. You sway a little, not used to being on land again after your long journey, and he catches you with a laugh.
“Rufus,” he says, holding out a hand. “I can see you’re a Roman. Not used to being at sea, eh?”
You smile as you take the hand that’s being held out to you and shake it. “I don’t mean to be rude, Rufus, but — who are you?”
Rufus chuckles again. “I’m a friend of your father’s,” he explains. “He wrote to me that you’d be coming and that you’re new to these parts, asked me to give you a tour of the city, show you the ropes and so on. Shall we go?” He motions over to a ramp up to a large gate, and you fall into step beside him as you walk up into the city.
“This is the Porta Marina,” he says, gesturing up to the huge gate. “It’s the main gate from the harbour up into the city.” You squeeze to the side as an enormous cart trundles past, ringing a bell to warn pedestrians to get out of the way.
“How many gates are there into the city?” you ask, once the cart has made its way past and down into the port.
Rufus rubs his chin, and you can see he’s counting up the gates. “Seven,” he says, after a while. “Oh, wait, no, I forgot the Herculaneum Gate – eight, then.” He pauses. “It’s not the largest town on the bay, Pompeii, and it’s certainly not the biggest you’ll ever see – but it makes up in liveliness what it doesn’t have in size.”
You’ve come out from under the gate now, and are walking uphill into the city on a road paved with large stones. To your right is an ornate temple covered in marble, with tall fluted columns and white-robed priests milling around the steep front steps.
“The Temple of Venus,” Rufus says, seeing where you’re looking. “But that’s old. The one you really want to see is the Temple of Isis.” He raises his eyebrows and gives a low whistle. “We won’t have time for it today, but it’s worth a visit, trust me.”
You’re just wondering why when you round a corner, and suddenly – quite unexpectedly – you emerge into a large open space. A colonnade runs around it, and at the other end, you can just make out another temple, smaller than the Temple of Venus but just as impressive, set against the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius. People are milling around everywhere selling their wares, and you can hear sellers calling out everything from freshly baked bread to custom-made shoes.
“This would be a good place to look for fish sauce,” you say, more to yourself, but Rufus shakes his head.
“You want to go to the Herculaneum Gate for that,” he says, and he leads you forwards into the crowds of people.
“This is the Forum,” he shouts over the humdrum noise of buyers and sellers, lawyers and priests. “It’s the heart of Pompeii. Great place, the Forum. You can do anything and meet anyone here.”
You nod. You’ve been to the Forum in Rome many times, you know how it serves as the beating heart of the city, housing the law courts, markets, temples, shops and council houses. But this one is very different – more organised than the Roman Forum, you think. At least this one doesn’t have centuries-old mythical monuments littering it all over the place.
You busy yourself with fighting your way through the crowds until you reach the other side of the Forum and the crowds thin a bit. Rufus is sweating and mopping his brow with a dirty cloth.
“Phew,” he says. “I’m always glad when I reach the Main Street. It’s great for business, the Forum, but it can get a little —”
Another cart passes by, clanging its bell, and you miss the rest of the sentence.
After a little while walking down the street in silence, you come to a crossroads, with a magnificent set of baths on the left. Rufus doesn’t pay them any attention though. He’s pointing to a large pair of doors on the opposite side of the road, set in what looks like a pretty plain wall.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it,” he says with a knowing smile, seeing the look on your face. “But that’s the house of one of the oldest families in Pompeii.”
You look at the huge bronze doors, and feel a shiver run down your spine, even though the day is hot.
“Who lives there?”
Rufus gives a snort. “Lucius Popidius Secundus,” he says derisively, though he lowers his voice to a whisper and looks around him all the same. He gives you a knowing look. “There are plenty of stories I could tell you about him, my friend.”
Continued on Thursday– come back to find out where Rufus goes next!
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.