Thank you for all your responses! I hope you enjoy visiting your favourite sites in the completion of the walking tour below!
It’s 75 CE. You’re a merchant from Rome who has come to buy some fish sauce in Pompeii. Rufus, a merchant from Pompeii, has just finished giving you a tour of the city and has left you by yourself at the Herculaneum Gate. You’re trying to work out how to get back to the harbour before the sun sets.
You look around you. With Rufus gone, you’ve got absolutely no idea how to get back to the harbour, and you’re starting to worry that, if you’re not there in time, your ship might leave without you. You turn around and hurriedly shove a few denarii into the hand of the nearest fish sauce seller, grab a basket full of pots of the stinking sauce, and make your way towards the gate.
I came into the city through one of the gates in the city walls, you reason with yourself, trying not to drop the basket of fish sauce as a crowd of noisy party-goers push past you. So, if I follow the city walls, that should take me back to where I started – eventually.
You try to ignore the creeping feeling in your stomach as you imagine what will happen if the ship leaves for Rome without you.
Scrambling a bit on the stone steps, you make your way up the rampart beside the Herculaneum Gate and onto the city walls. You hoped you’d have a good view from here, but the walls on the rampart are high enough that you can’t make out anything except a partial view over the sprawling city, full of high tenement blocks that blot out the darkening sky. You look right and left, then, not knowing which way to go, you toss one of your last denarii. The head of the Emperor Vespasian. Left, then.
You set off along the walls, trying to keep your basket level. Occasionally, you pass a massive fortified gate set in the walls, and you peer through, looking for the river Sarno and the harbour; but there are only dry, dusty roads leading away from these gates, to the shadowy hulking mass of Mount Vesuvius to your left, its flanks gold in the sunset. It’s starting to get a bit colder, and you hunch up your shoulders. This can’t be right. You’ve been walking for a good half hour, and still, no sign of the harbour.
When you reach the fourth gate, you decide that you must have gone the wrong way. You can see the main road that you and Rufus walked down only a few hours ago, stretching out below you like a yellow ribbon; and to the left of the road, a tavern, its oil lamps burning invitingly.
Without further thought, you scramble your way down the slope beside the gate and make your way towards the tavern. At least you can ask someone there for directions; and you wouldn’t say no to a good honey cake, either.
As you push open the door, the sound of chatter and laughter reaches your ears, and the delicious smell of roasting meat. You pass the bar, with its jars full to the brim of sweet red wine, and a few tables where men are sitting and playing dice. At one end of the room, serving a couple of men who look like they could be gladiators, you spot a woman with curled red hair who is carrying a tray with goblets of watered wine.
“Excuse me,” you say, approaching her cautiously. She turns around.
“Are you looking for a room?” she says, putting one hand on her hip. “Or just a meal?”
“Oh, no, I’m not here to buy,” you say quickly, hitching your basket up higher. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my way. I need to get back to the harbour.”
She smiles at you. “Not often we get someone here at Julia Felix’s who doesn’t want to buy,” she says, setting down her tray and taking you by the arm, leading you over to the door. “This is the most popular tavern in town. You’re lucky you stumbled on us and not somewhere else.”
She points across the street, to a bar packed with half-drunk men, some of them in the midst of a brawl.
“Anyway,” she says, and she leans out of the door and shades her eyes against the setting sun, “you’ll want to follow the main road that way,” she points down the road, away from the walls, “all the way through the city. Don’t turn at any of the crossroads, and don’t get distracted when you hit the forum.” She gleams a smile at you. “Just keep straight on. That should take you to the gate to the harbour alright.”
You thank her and give her another denarius for a honey cake before you take your leave. After a few blocks of houses, you suddenly recognise where you are. This is the very crossroads you passed with Rufus! There, on the right, are the baths, and on the left behind that high wall must be the house of Lucius Popidius Secundus! You start to quicken your footsteps. Any moment now you’ll be in the Forum, and then it’s only a matter of time until…
As the road starts to slope down towards the harbour, you almost whoop with joy. You’ve just spotted the Porta Marina. You hurry down the slight hill and through the gate, the traffic much less busy now. You give a sigh of relief. Your ship is there, floating on the water, just where it was a few hours ago. You hurry towards it, waving at the captain and pointing at your basket.
“Did you have to wait for me?” you ask breathlessly, heaving your basket on board and preparing to climb onto the ship, too.
The captain squints down at you. “We’ve got an hour left till we leave,” he says, staring at your sweaty face and dust-covered hands. “I hope you didn’t hurry here.”
You rub your forehead irritably. An hour left! All that rushing for nothing! Your stomach gives a loud grumble, and you think ruefully that you could have stopped in Julia Felix’s tavern for a whole meal.
The irritation must show on your face, because the captain smiles.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “There’s a perfect place to relax before we go. Over there,” and he points towards a large porticoed building, built right on the harbour edge. “The Suburban Baths. You’ve got time for a quick dip to wash off all that sweat and dust before we head for Rome.”
You thank him and make your way over towards the building. The entrance is quiet and dark, and you step immediately into the changing room. The walls are covered in paintings of couples in lewd positions. You smile as you place your clothes in a locker beneath a couple who seem to be particularly enjoying themselves. What an innovative way to make sure you remember where you put your clothes, you think to yourself.
After a tour through the baths, which involves a plunge into a cold pool, a sweating session in the boiling hot caldarium and a massage and a scrape-down in the tepidarium, you feel much kinder towards Pompeii than you did an hour ago. You retrieve your clothes without any problems, and make your way back to the ship. The sun is just about to set as you climb aboard and stow your basket of fish sauce carefully in the hold.
“So,” the captain asks as one of the ship’s boys draws up the anchor and he hoists the sail, ready to leave, “how did you like Pompeii?”
You smile as you watch the lights of Pompeii, reflected in the water of the Sarno river, drifting into the distance.
“It’s not the biggest city you’ll ever see,” I say, quoting Rufus with a smile, “but then, I think I agree with my friend – it makes up in liveliness what it lacks in size.”
And, with that, you turn around towards the prow of the ship and look out to sea.
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.