06 February, 2009


Having stayed the night in the “small” (by some standards) town of Stabiae, the place where the Roman Admiral Pliny the Elder died after inhaling poisonous fumes from the looming Vesuvius, we turned our attention to Pompeii on Saturday. There is, remarkably enough, a modern town of Pompei (the modern version drops the extra “i”) built practically on top of the ancient one. The volcano, and the fact that it's by now quite overdue for another eruption, doesn't seem to bother them.

The ancient version everyone knows about was incredible. It's much larger than I had anticipated – nearly all of it has been excavated by now, and so the area is about the size of a large but densely populated city. When I say large, I mean there were probably about 25,000-50,000 inhabitants, which isn't bad at all, especially if you're living in the ancient world, where a city of over a million would have been gargantuan. (Apparently, cities in the million+ population range are pretty common nowadays. Or so they tell me. They still seem anomalous.)

There are some cordoned off areas at the site, but one of the best aspects of it is the fact that for the most part you can wander through the streets and into houses and shops at will. Varying states of preservation can be found, as you might imagine. Some places look just like conventional ruins – you know, the type that to an untrained eye looks like a rather boring pile of rock. Others were magnificently preserved: their first floor-level roofs intact, their gardens flourishing with plants that would have been here in 79 AD, fountains bubbling, and wall paintings and mosaics very much intact.

It's remarkable to picture the ancient world in color, and Pompeii helps one do that. When you consider that these oh-so-aesthetically pleasing statues, now pristine and white, were once rather garishly painted, it rather alters your immensely high opinion of their taste. None of that is to say that the sculpture isn't great. And the murals on the walls and the mosaics on the floors would all have been even brighter than they currently are. But the paintings are very nice in themselves. To those of us retaining an image of a pure, clean, white ancient city, however, the reality would be rather startling, I should think.

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