A raging downpour of volcanic ash engulfs an illustrious Roman city, thus wiping out its entire population: it does seem somewhat improbable. Had you never heard anything of Pompeii you would probably regard it as just another legend created as a campfire tale or a yarn to spin over a pint at the pub. However, archaeologists and historians have worked tirelessly to showcase the truth to this story, and I was lucky enough to view the evidence for myself on a day trip to the site.
The first thing that struck me on entering Pompeii was the size of it. It was simply enormous! From the back row of a tiered amphitheatre I could look down on the vast ruins, which extended for miles into the Italian horizon. Pompeii was no small town. It was a living and thriving city famous with traders for its promises of profit. To visit Pompeii is to encounter many different aspects of Roman life. Amongst what we explored were bath houses, forums, palaces and a gladiator school. We even came across a brothel, with crude pictures painted on the walls so foreign merchants could indicate their ‘preferences!’ However, within this massive scale, the minute details hidden around the city proved to be the most memorable. It was incredible to see Roman graffiti on the walls of buildings and to know it was scribed by the hand of a person living thousands of years ago. On the main roads, I could see deep grooves in the stone slabs from the vast numbers of chariots that had charged down them.
It is easy to carve out a distance between ourselves and the people of the past that extends beyond the differing times we exist in. As we methodically analyse their ways of life in history books, we risk viewing them as a different species to us, almost like aliens. Pompeii breaks down this wall. The counters of food shops with embedded containers for different items were just like those in Subway, where we’ve all treated ourselves for lunch on the go. Pieces of white marble were placed between the road slabs to help chariot riders see their path in the night, like the cats eyes that illuminate modern motorways for our ‘engine-powered chariots.’
From making these connections between us and them comes a sense of empathy, which adds an emotive dimension to the Pompeii experience. To see fire bursting from the volcano in the distance, followed by ash falling from the sky and toxic gases making breathing impossible all must have been terrifying. Through the wreckage signs of this can be spotted. In the palaces, skeletons have been found in the shrines as people ran there for protection thinking the Gods would keep them safe. Not many of the figures frozen in ash that Pompeii is famous for are there any more as many have been moved to museums. However, I did see a few, and one that particularly moved me was of a man sat with his head in his hands. These moments of pure, organic fear captured in time are a powerful reminder of moments when we ourselves have felt truly afraid, and this is where the most powerful sensation of empathy kicks in. Whilst cause and effect tend to dominate the study of history, Pompeii reminds us that thoughts and feelings are present too, and can be documented just as vitally.
Having been there and got the t-shirt, I now believe Pompeii to be so much more than an indie rock song or disaster movie. Our tour guide explained that there is constant friction between archaeologists and the tourist board over how much of Pompeii can be opened to the public. Whilst I loved visiting Pompeii, I can see both sides of the argument. This place feels so precious and it seems crucial to preserve the chance to walk through a day in the life of a Roman citizen. Sadly for the inhabitants of Pompeii, this particular day proved to be their last.