Lost cities of the Roman empire

Print edition : August 12, 2005

The remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two cities in western Italy that were destroyed in a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79, speak volumes about life in a bygone era.

The Arch of Caligula in Pompeii, with a view of Mt. Vesuvius in the background. The gaps in the stone barrier were meant for chariot wheels to pass through.-

AUGUST 23, A.D. 79. The day dawned bright and sunny as usual and seemed full of promise. The citizens of Pompeii went about their daily business, blissfully unaware of what destiny had in store for them. They were totally unprepared when late in the evening their world erupted in a pyroclastic flow - of molten lava, pumice, ash, hot stones and debris, suffocating, singeing, charring and melting everything that lay in its path as a river of fire gushed out in primordial fury down the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii and its 20,000 inhabitants were buried alive in an instant.

"Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames . . . Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night."

This is an excerpt from a live account of the events of that fateful day, recorded for posterity by Pliny the Younger, a Roman historian. At the time of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the Roman fleet under the command of Pliny the Elder was stationed across the Bay of Naples. A foolhardy Pliny the Elder launched ships and sailed toward the erupting volcano for a closer look only to be suffocated to death. Pliny's nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, was with him on that day, but had stayed back at Misenum. He had witnessed the eruption and also received first-hand reports from those who were with his uncle in the latter's last moments.

One of the pillars that have been unearthed at Pompeii. The pillars sport lonic, Doric and Roman features, which would suggest that they were built over different periods.-

Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus, recounting the horrifying destruction wrought by the exploding volcano. These accounts have survived and provide an eloquent eyewitness account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the fate that befell Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum, called Ercolano by Italians. Today, we know that Pompeii and Herculaneum also survive, albeit in a ruined state, in the suburbs of modern-day Naples.

Naples reminds you of Mumbai - ramshackle multi-storey apartments festooned with fluttering laundry, walls scrawled with grafitti, balconies cluttered with furniture, winding streets choking with traffic. It also has some of the friendliest and chattiest people you will find anywhere in Europe. In fact, Naples seems hardly European.

In Naples, all roads lead to Pompeii, or so you would have thought. But there is nary a signpost telling you where to go, how to go. Pompeii boasts more than 4,000 visitors daily, and all of them probably stumble their way to Pompeii - as I did. After some peregrinations, I found myself on the `circumvesuviana' train from Naples to Pompeii Scavi - Italian for excavation site.

The train chugged southwards along the spectacular Bay of Naples, with a cobalt-blue Mediterranean shimmering to my right and a deceptively serene Vesuvius looming to my left. Its once lava-encrusted slopes are overgrown with vegetation. But for the tell-tale appearance of a sawn-off peak, you would hardly recognise it as a volcano. I alighted at Scavi and followed the road to the ruins.

The marble sculpture at the altar in the Temple of Vespasian in Pompeii shows a bull being led for sacrifice.-

Until the early 18th century, few knew of the existence of Pompeii. Those who had read Pliny the Younger's graphic account of the havoc wreaked by Mt. Vesuvius had probably assumed that the city had vanished into the entrails of the quaking earth. Then in 1711, a landowner digging a well on his premises came across fragments of marble statues. Soon the Austrian aristocracy in Naples got wind of the treasures that lay underneath and began tunnelling recklessly, destroying valuable works of art in the process. In 1748, Charles of Bourbon ordered systematic excavations on the site. Thus the world got its first tantalising glimpse of a buried city that revealed so much about the life and times of a bygone era.

Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia were independent states of Campania which were conquered by the Romans in 80 B.C. While Stabia was sacked and destroyed by Silla, the Roman General, the other two came under Roman rule, as much of their architecture shows. Pompeii and Herculaneum suffered two successive earthquakes - the first was in A.D. 62, after which Pompeii was rebuilt extensively only to be consumed by the devastating volcanic eruption.

An overview of Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii that was destroyed with it.-

My tour took me to both these cities, located a few miles apart. Pompeii is by far the more spectacular of the two. Its ruins are accessed through the grand Porta Marina, which gets its name from its location facing the sea and which was one of the eight gates of the walled city of Pompeii. As you enter, you stand on the threshold of the expansive Forum or the main square of Pompeii and the nerve centre of the religious, political and economic life of the ancient city.

The Forum is expansive - 142 metres long and 32 metres wide - paved in travertine and surrounded by arcades on three sides and the Temple of Jupiter on the fourth. There are massive columns which must have supported the roof - sporting Doric, Ionic and Roman features, which would suggest that they were built over different periods. At the centre is the "suggestum" - the raised platform from which orators addressed the public, much like the soap-box Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park.

The public buildings of the city did not survive, but the remains of the private houses point to opulent lifestyles.-

Along with Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were also worshipped at the Temple at the far end. To the left of the temple is the Arch of Tiberius, the Roman emperor who ruled from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37; and to the right is the Arch of Nero, who ruled from A.D. 54 to A.D. 68. Another temple in the Forum complex is the Temple of Apollo built in Roman style. The sanctum sanctorum, built on a pedestal, was accessible only to the high priest, and worshippers would gather outside in a courtyard. The temple held statues of Apollo, his sister Diana and possibly Mercury as well, but none of the originals remain.

Along the sides of the Forum are the public buildings and offices. The ruins even give away the rank and status of the various public functionaries. For instance, municipal offices are on raised platforms and were most certainly used by city magistrates for administration purposes. They were rebuilt after the A.D. 62 earthquake, which also points to their importance. The Assembly building, referred to as the `Comitium', was originally covered in marble and is believed to have been used for conducting elections. Then there is the office of weights and measures called Mensa Poneraria, with the weights neatly fitted into their slots on a stone slab, still intact. Before distributing their products, the merchants were compelled to compare their measurements here to ensure uniformity with the approved set of weights and measures.

Murals of great beauty have survived intact.-

As I stood at the Forum and surveyed the extraordinarily well-preserved ruins, I marvelled at the paradox - the same lava, lapilli and ash that buried entire cities and annihilated a flourishing population had also preserved their ruins for posterity. But for the ash, the buildings would not have withstood the ravages of time. The structures look as though the inhabitants have just walked out of their homes, shops and offices and will return anytime. For instance, there is an oven with half-baked bread which has turned to carbon. Trading at the Macellum or the covered market seems to have been abruptly terminated as disaster struck. There is a neat row of shops on one side, a canopied fishmongers' stall in the middle - recognised by its circular shape and the water basin in the middle. If you stand there and close your eyes for a moment, you can almost hear the chopping and pounding sounds and voices haggling over a prize catch.

On the other side is the expansive Basilica, undoubtedly the most important building in Pompeii. It was the seat of the law courts and the chambers of commerce. The 28 brick columns that supported the roof exhibit Greek influence. In fact, the Basilica is believed to be pre-Roman, built around 120 B.C, because of the Oscan seal found on the tiles near the gate. At the far end of the Basilica is the rostrum from which judgments may have been delivered. There is even a separate entrance for the judges to enter and withdraw. In fact, early Christian churches were built in the architectural style of the Basilica and thus came to be called `Basilica' themselves.

This marble sculpture at the House of Deer in Herculaneum shows a deer being hunted by a pack of dogs.-

The Temple of Vespasian was dedicated to the emperor of Rome from A.D. 69 until his death in A.D. 79. The white marble sculpture at the altar depicts a bull being led to sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered as an act of worship, their meat was eaten by the worshippers or sold in the marketplace. Whether a Christian could eat this meat was a matter of debate in the Church in the first century.

As I strolled along the cobbled streets rutted by chariot wheels and framed by gates such as the Gate of Caligula, I was befriended by Luciano Felici, one of the curators of the ruins at Pompeii. Soon I realised how valuable his friendship was: he carried a bunch of keys that would throw open many buildings otherwise not open to tourists. What if I had to stretch and strain my linguistic skills to carry on a halting conversation with him in a language which was a hybrid of English, French and even Hindi, all the time hoping it sounded Italian?

This plaster cast shows a man huddled up in his shop when disaster struck in Pompeii. The fascinating story of the last days of Pompeii lives on in plaster casts obtained by pouring plaster into human-shaped empty spaces that a 19th century archaeologist found among the ruins.-

What strikes you most about Pompeii - and also Herculaneum for that matter - is that they are both very neatly laid-out cities, very elegant and very orderly. There was running water in the houses, as the numerous indoor fountains would testify. There were public baths - Roman style - with separate entrances for men and women; while the walls of both were decorated with terracotta statues, the women's baths were much more elegant with exquisite floral mosaics. There were separate dressing rooms called apodyterium, cold bath - frigidairium - warm bath - tepidarium - and hot bath - calidarium. The calidarium was heated by a system of double walls and a hollow floor, which provided circulation for hot air and steam. The large cold water basin has inscriptions with names of the donors who funded its construction. There was also the palaestra or the gymnasium and separate areas for ablutions. There were public latrines with running water channels. In fact, the baths take up quite a bit of space in Pompeii and Herculaneum, pointing to the fastidiousness of early Romans when it came to personal hygiene. In Herculaneum, there is even a bronze bath-tub that is still intact.

Across the street from the Forum Baths was the tavern cum fast-food stall or thermopolium; it had marble slabs punctured with holes in which were fitted vats containing soups, drinks and snacks.

The Basilica was by far the most important building in Pompeii and was the seat of law courts and the chamber of commerce.-

While the public spaces in both Pompeii and Herculaneum were impressive enough, it is the private residences that were stunning in their grace and opulence. Pompeii had several aristocratic houses, the most notable being those of Faun and Vetti. These palatial homes had a huge atrium surrounded by gardens. The atrium usually had a hole in the roof, called the compluvium, which allowed rainwater to collect in the fountain below, and the sunlight to streak through. The living quarters were painstakingly decorated with fountains and statues and the walls were almost always painted with murals - some of the original colours are still intact.

Floors in the houses in both Pompeii and Herculaneum were almost always covered with elaborate and at times intricate mosaic patterns which are well preserved even to this day. In fact, one of the houses sports a mosaic dog at the entrance with the Latin inscription which warns the visitor: "Beware of dog." It was not unusual for many aristocratic families to have four or five slaves who did all the menial work while their masters led lives of leisure.

Jars used for holding wines and olive oil found in Pompeii, still intact.-

There is also a large open-air theatre at the rear - very similar to the Roman amphitheatre - but actually built in Greek style to seat 5,000 people. Alas, even Felici's magic key bunch did not have the right keys for this one. So I had to be content with seeing pictures of the theatre. I was told that during Nero's time, it was used to train gladiators.

Giuseppe Fiorelli, in charge of the excavations in 1860, found mysterious human-shaped empty spaces among the ruins and decided to pour plaster into them. Voila, these turned out to be replicas of human beings caught unawares by the eruption and now immortalised by plaster. The technique caught astonishing detail of the clothing, footwear and even facial expressions at the time of death. Thus you have a man huddled in his shop with his knees drawn up to his chin, a woman fallen face down, clutching her baby, and many more in different positions, a sight that is at once macabre and tragic. The plaster casts are a fascinating study of human reactions of people who know their death is imminent. The site also contained numerous utensils and terracotta jars that presumably held olive oil and wines.

A floor mosaic at a doorway in Herculaneum. The image of a dog is accompanied by a message in Latin urging visitors to "beware of dog".-

Herculaneum, despite being the lesser known of the twin cities - and unjustly so - has some impressive remnants of Roman architecture. The public spaces in Herculaneum were mostly destroyed, but for the series of pillars of an Assembly Hall, the Forum Baths and the taverns. But the opulence of the private buildings reveals a lot about lifestyles in the city.

A mural over a fireplace, also in Herculaneum.-

The most remarkable of the many sites discovered in Herculaneum is the Villa of Papyri containing scrolls which turned out to be treasure houses of contemporary Roman knowledge. It contained unreadable charred rolls which seemed to have fused into a solid mass, but have since been eased open with the help of special techniques to reveal 1,800 separate sheets containing texts which took several years to decipher. It has now been confirmed that the scrolls contain Greek - not Latin as originally believed - philosophical texts. The House of Papyri is still being excavated.

A view of the Assembly in Pompeii.-

The frescos and floor mosaics in Herculaneum are luminous even after two millennia. The mural figures include Neptune, Amphitrite, Poseidon and Hercules, not to mention the ubiquitous Cupids. In the House of Deer, there is a stunning marble statue of a deer being hunted by a pack of dogs. The floor mosaics come in mesmerising geometric patterns as well as in the shapes of sea creatures and animals. Herculaneum also has some well-preserved iron grills caked over with dried volcanic material. Even wooden beams supporting the roof and staircases are carbonised and intact in some of the houses.

A typical tavern in Herculaneum, with marble slabs punctured with holes where vats were fitted to hold wine. Similar taverns have been unearthed in Pompeii too.-

I left Herculaneum to catch the bus that rides up the Vesuvius. It takes you half-way up and you have to trudge the rest of the 1,000 metres to the crater. But for the occasional ash flying into your eyes and hair, there is nary a sign that this was once an angry, rumbling volcano that breathed fire and brimstone and drowned two beautiful seaside towns in its pyroclastic flow. But do not let the verdant foliage lull you into complacency. Scientists say Vesuvius is still alive. It has erupted more than 50 times since A.D. 79. The question to ask, therefore, is not whether it will explode again, but when!