By Robin Catalano
The stone under the backs of my thighs was smooth and hot, like a car seat warmed by the sun. I’d been here for nearly four hours, and overcome with a combination of foot fatigue and the intensity of the Campanian heat, I’d stopped to sit on a raised sidewalk beside the crumbling ruins of tavern. My traveling companion fanned himself with his hat and swigged an entire bottle of water in three long gulps. The streets thronged with people, some walking in pairs or groups, glossy maps held taut between them. Some hauled large backpacks and cameras on tripods. Others pushed strollers. I looked to Mount Vesuvius glowering in the distance, and closed my eyes. In the darkness of my mind, I conjured the shouts of vegetable sellers, the smell of almonds roasting and rustic bread baking, the vibrations of iron wheels turning as a donkey-drawn cart rolled past on the street. I thought of the thousands who’d lived here, their names now lost to history.
I’d come to Pompeii, and its sister city Herculaneum, in the blazing heat of early fall on the western Italian coast, to do as millions have before me: walk the path of the ancients. Ruins have been a point of fascination for me for as long as I’ve been able to read. While other kids were playing street hockey and chasing each other on their five-speeds, I had my nose pressed to the pages of books about shipwrecks and ancient Roman cities. I overstuffed my class schedule in college just so I could have double major in anthropology. I’ve since been lucky enough to travel to sites like Chichén Itzá, Tulúm, Mysore, Athens, Rome, and Segovia, and I’ve gawked from car and train windows at the many crumbling castillos that pepper the countryside of Spain.
But Pompeii is different. The origins of the city are hazy. The oldest archaeological evidence dates to the late 7th century BCE. Long populated by a mixture of cultures—Opics, Etruscans, Greeks, Samnites, and, later, Romans—it was a center of trade, commerce, and wine production, and a melting pot of the rich and poor, powerful and slaves, politicians and prostitutes.
Herculaneum, a coveted trading port, changed hands from the Samnites to the Greeks and then the Romans. A seaside community, it was more affluent than Pompeii, with a greater density of upscale dwellings and the more extravagant use of decorative materials, like tile and colored marble. There was also a significant population of freed slaves; some experts estimate they made up half of the population.
The story of Pompeii and Herculaneum, plus nearby Stabiae, Oplontis, and Boscoreale, is recognizable to anyone who’s cracked open a junior high history book. The sites first sustained damage during a severe earthquake in 62 AD. Reconstruction followed, only to be halted by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius 17 years later. The date was long thought to have been August 24, but some recently discovered charcoal graffiti at Pompeii points to October 24 as the cities’ final day.
When Vesuvius blew her top, she carpeted Pompeii in a heavy layer of ash, rock, and pumice. The blast battered Herculaneum with a column of gas and fiery material that shot almost 20 feet high before crashing down, at a temperature of about 930°F, onto the city. The few left alive were killed the next day, when surges of pyroclastic flow (a deadly mix of fiery lava, ash, and gases hot enough to nearly vaporize living things) rolled through the cities, punching holes through buildings, snapping columns, flattening roofs, and suffocating their inhabitants. Both cities lay buried—Pompeii under 20-plus feet of ash and Herculaneum under more than 70 feet—until Herculaneum was rediscovered in the 1709, allegedly by a farmer digging a well.
The rediscovery of both sites led to a flurry of activity, from looting to government-controlled and unregulated excavations, inexpert “restoration” and World War II Allied bombings, both of which caused irreparable damage, and an eighteenth-century “cult of melancholy collapse and picturesque rot” that saw the wealthy decking out their homes and gardens with decay-inspired artwork and décor. It’s clear that the people and civilizations that have been lost to time—and ruins, their living testament—have captivated imaginations for centuries. So what is it about them that speaks to us?
Ruins are, first and foremost, a mystery that force us to either dig for clues to uncover their original intent, or, in the absence of historical documentation, encourage us to imagine a time and a life that once was—an archaeology of ideas, not just places. They teach us something about the past, and often make us more aware of, and perhaps grateful for, our own existence.
But ruins also have an elegiac quality. They remind us how quickly time passes, how easily we can be forgotten, even when what we’ve created has managed to outlive us.
As I stepped inside Pompeii’s Villa dei Misteri, with its large rooms, rich design, and fresco-covered walls, I heard whispers of wealth and importance, the ardent expression of status not unlike our McMansions or our drive to have and be seen with the latest gadgets. At its Gladiators’ Barracks, sprawling yet contained within rows of Doric columns, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the mightiest military can’t protect us from every threat. From its central marketplace and adjoining granary, which now houses thousands of the site’s artifacts, to its provocatively decorated brothel, where slaves were forced into prostitution on stone beds, in spaces no larger or better lit than prison cells, Pompeii’s 179 acres are full of these reminders of humanity—both its finest moments and its ugliest misdeeds.
In the main portion of Herculaneum, the remembrances feel more intimate. This is partly because Herculaneum is much smaller and in a far better state of preservation, with many intact structures and items that feel more personal, like wooden furniture (carbonized to a night-black crisp) and a shop sign advertising the price of wine and evening entertainment. Another shop’s wine amphorae still sit, lined up like obedient kindergarteners, on shelves. In yet another, the world’s oldest screw press for ironing fabric stands sentinel over a decaying room. There are grand estates hung with evil eyes for protection, multifamily boarding houses, taverns that accommodated convivial groups at their long stone bars for lunch each day, and even a hall where freed slaves met and organized.
As I progress from one site to the next, and finally to Herculaneum’s Barrel Arches, where three hundred people perished while huddled in fear, hoping for rescue boats that never arrived, I’m struck again by what these sites represent—for the past and for today.
Ruins bring us face-to-decaying-face with our mortality, and the knowledge that no matter how groundbreaking a contribution we make, time is the great leveler of playing fields. In the end, no era, no moment of greatness, and no one lasts forever.
For me, the purpose of reflecting on Pompeii and Herculaneum isn’t simply to tell a tale about two sites destroyed by catastrophe; many have documented it better than I ever could. It’s my own attempt to answer the question: If a once-important place falls prey to the vagaries of time and the elements, and others don’t witness it, or else see it solely as a curiosity, did the people and time it served ever really matter?
I’d like to think they do, and, by extension, I do, but the truth is that there’s no way to prove it. Instead I comfort myself with the knowledge that everything we do—and everything that has been done by the millions of nameless, faceless people before us—lays the groundwork for what comes next. In that way, pieces of all of us live on, even if we never know the effect we’ve had.
Maybe ruin is the wrong word; it implies destruction and collapse. What I see when I look at Pompeii or Herculaneum—at an ancient bakery, its massive millstones standing silent and motionless, at a beautiful home adorned in colorful mosaics celebrating gods and nymphs, at a crumbling first-century wall or sidewalk—is accomplishment, memory, a stamp in time that says, “I was here. You never knew me, but I made a difference.”
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Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.