Pompeii: Haunted by History

Ruins of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background
Ruins of Pompeii

More than nineteen hundred years ago, on August 24 (AD 79), volcano Mount Vesuvius, located on the Gulf of Naples in Campania, Italy, roused itself from a long sleep and erupted. Within 42 hours, the thriving Roman seacoast town of Pompeii was buried under 23 feet of volcanic ash and lapilli (droplets of molten or semi-molten lava). Other towns for miles around, famously including Herculaneum, were wiped out, too. The landscape was changed forever and, in time, Pompeii herself was forgotten. But she guarded her secrets well, preserving them until 1748, when a pickax strike broke through her stone shroud.

As it happens, I’ve been rereading an excellent NY Times bestseller by Robert Harris titled Pompeii. He’s an exceptionally good storyteller, and this account of the town’s last days is exciting, beautifully researched, intelligent, and wonderfully imagined. I highly recommend it.

View of Rome's skyling from across the Tiber River
Rome, the Eternal City

Reading Pompeii again drew me back to my own unforgettable visit to the town many years ago. I’d been traveling around Europe auditioning for ballet companies. The audition season fell late in the year, with a hiatus during the Christmas holiday. So, being lonely and bored, I decided to make good use of my Eurail Train Pass, jump on a train, and head south for Rome. No plan; just a whim.

It was the perfect time of year to visit: mild weather and only a handful of tourists. I met one—a girl from Chicago—while exchanging deutsche marks for lira, and after a month on my own, mostly hearing and speaking (poorly) German, it was wonderful to chat with someone from home. She’d been on her own for awhile, too, so we decided to team up and see Rome together.

After an intoxicating day of tramping around the Eternal City, we set our sights on Pompeii. Leaving early the next morning, we arrived well before noon. The sky was slightly overcast, the weather cool, and the gods had smiled on us—Pompeii was utterly deserted. In fact, at the entrance to the ruins, we met the only other visitors we saw that day: a history professor from a Texas college and his wife. Pompeii was their passion; they knew her history, treasures, and secrets inside and out.

Wall fresco depicting a lady of Pompeii holding clay tablet and stylus
Wall fresco portrait of a young woman

That chance meeting was a stroke of luck. My friend and I were treated to a guided tour of the ruins. The professor knew exactly where an excavated room or courtyard displayed a beautiful fresco or a gorgeous fountain. He knew where to find 2000-year-old graffiti and what it said, and could tell us what vendors had sold in this or that shop, the purpose of this or that public building or temple, and so on.

What I’ll never forget was the solemn silence of Pompeii. Two-thousand people—15 per cent of the town’s entire population—were suffocated or burned to death by the hot gases and ash that enveloped it on those two fateful August days. A final discharge of pyroclastic material finished the job, engulfing the walls and burying  the victims. It was truly a city of the dead. Its only voice was the wind slipping along the empty streets and through the ruined doors and windows.

Stone cast of a crouching figure, a victim of Vesuvius' eruption
Stone cast of a victim of Vesuvius’ eruption

Oddly, no one has seriously claimed that Pompeii is haunted. You would think that a site of such large scale violence and tragic death would be. To touch the warm temple stones, walk streets that were buried for centuries, peer into shops, homes, and gardens, or gaze upon exquisitely preserved painting, portraits, mosaics and bronzes is to reach through Time’s veil and link with the past, if only for a moment. Yet, Pompeii is haunted solely by its history, not the spirits of the dead; haunted by what happened in two horrific days that captured glimpses of daily life in the volcanic debris.

Now I smile with one last memory—a surreal moment while sitting high up in the stone seats of Pompeii’s vast amphitheater , looking out across the arena at the distant peak of Mt. Vesuvius. (The town’s amphitheater is the oldest known building designed for gladiatorial games.) My friend and I had not thought to bring along food for the excursion, but the professor and his wife had come prepared and were delighted to share. So, in the presence of the sleeping volcano, surrounded by a city that never left the first century AD, we four tore soft chunks of fresh-baked bread from a fat, round, Italian loaf and topped it with American peanut butter. A culinary crime, I’m sure, but bless his heart, the professor never traveled without it! It tasted marvelous.

Long cobblestone street through the ruins of Pompeii
A street in Pompeii

In addition to these memories, I have one precious souvenir from that incredible day: a tiny cube of marble that once may have graced a mosaic. As we four strolled through the streets, the professor spotted it, picked it up, and gave it to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have kept it, but I did and treasure it still. It’s my small connection to history-haunted Pompeii and, with luck, will work like a charm to bring me back to her someday.




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