When Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 (CE), Pompeii, a vibrant city of around 20,000, as well as nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae, were buried in volcanic ash. We have an eyewitness account of what must have been an experience terrifying beyond measure. Pliny the Elder, who was commanding the Roman fleet stationed in the Bay of Naples, saw it happen. Alerted by his sister to — as his nephew writes several years later to Tacitus — “a cloud of unusual size and appearance,” Pliny decided to set sail with the fleet for a closer look and to rescue as many people as possible. In fact he, himself, perished on the shore. “When daylight returned on the 26th, two days after the last day he had been seen,” writes Pliny the Younger, “his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.” The cities remained buried until excavations began in 1748.
I’d seen pictures and documentaries, looked at Web sites, and read the guidebook. I’ve stood on Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve seen the stunning Pont du Gard. I’ve seen Roman remains and amphitheatres in England, France, Yugoslavia, and Italy. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of Pompeii. You’re not seeing just one building or structure (however impressive); you’re walking along the streets of what was once an entire Roman city. You’re going into houses people lived in and shops where they bought food—complete with intact mosaic counters and deep tubs that would have held olives. You’re seeing the sidewalks they walked on and the public water fountains, fed by an aqueduct system that is surely one of the wonders of engineering, that they used on a daily basis. You’re touching stones they touched and looking at frescoes they commissioned as decoration for their villas.
And everywhere you look, you know that you are seeing what was, for so many terrified people, the last thing they would ever see. I found it breathtaking and very moving.
Walking in a buried city