Few archeological sites offer a more immersive travel experience than the excavated ruins of Pompeii southeast of Naples, Italy. In 79 A.D., the volcano Vesuvius erupted, covering the Roman City with 12 meters (40 feet) of fine ash, which preserved the buried city and its asphyxiated residents intact for nearly 1700 years. Ongoing excavations begun in the 18th century have unearthed a wealth of artifacts and have also revealed intricate details about the everyday lives of Pompeii’s doomed inhabitants.
Whether peering into a humble shops and homes, viewing the villas of the city’s wealthiest families or gazing at ruined temples to the gods, there’s more to see in Pompeii than can be experienced in a short guided tour. Here are some of the sights sure to capture the interest and imagination of anyone who visits Pompeii.
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As the oldest structure in Pompeii, the Temple of Apollo facing the city’s Forum illustrates the changes in architectural styles that occurred from its early beginnings in the 6th century B.C. to the moment of its destruction in 79 A.D. The original Etruscan design was amended by the Greeks, and then expanded by the Romans with the addition of a perimeter of outer columns. While most of the temple’s original bronze statues are now in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, a copy of Apollo and a bust of the goddess Diana stand in their place.
Situated in the western sector of the Pompeii ruins, the House of the Vettii is one the city’s best-preserved Roman villas. Renovated after the earthquake of 62 AD, it features a fresh, unified design that includes an assortment of beautiful frescoes painted with black backgrounds framed in yellow and red. Named after the wealthy merchants who once lived here, the complex is designed to pamper its occupants and impress its guests with a series of entertainment rooms surrounding a large central courtyard enclosed by columns. Inside the peristyle are water-spouting statues, basins and fountains. The sculptures, and some of the household artifacts were all restored to their original contexts within the house so visitors can see what the house would have looked like before it was destroyed by the eruption of 79 AD.
The Lupanar of Pompeii, also known as Lupanare Grande, is the largest of the city’s many brothels. Located east of the Forum, it features 10 small rooms where brick platforms topped with mattresses once served as beds. Some of the wall paintings at the Lupanar are sexual in nature, but it’s the graffiti that both the prostitutes and the clientele scrawled on the walls that most surprises visitors. Given that wealthy Roman generally did not visit brothels because of the availability of mistresses and slave concubines, the writers names cannot be connected to known historical figures but the graffiti do tell stories, however. In some instances, writers responded to the messages carved into the walls, creating an ongoing dialogue that offers a unique look at the history of Pompeii.
Located in the far-west section of Pompeii, the House of the Tragic Poet is famed for its artful decoration, which includes frescoes and mosaics that are surprisingly grand for the home’s relatively small size. An elaborate floor mosaic depicting actors gathering backstage led archeologists to postulate that an important poet or writer might have lived here. Also notable are the large mythological creatures portrayed in the atrium’s frescoes. Near the entrance is a mosaic with the words “cave canem,” a warning to visitors that the property is protected by a fierce dog.
The center of ancient Pompeii was the forum, an expansive rectangular open area the served as the city’s political, cultural and commercial core. The Forum was the site of Pompeii’s marketplace as well as its court, bathhouses and temples. The court house known as the basilica had the same cross-shaped floor plan adopted later for Christian churches. While only a few of the columns from the two-story colonnades that flanked the open area remain and the buildings lie in ruins, the grand scale of the space is still impressive. It’s easy to imagine the bustle of activity that occurred here daily during the height of Pompeii’s glory.
The largest of the private villas in Pompeii, the House of the Faun takes up an entire city block. It was in this massive structure that archeologists discovered some of Pompeii’s greatest artistic treasures, including the Alexander Mosaic, which depicts Alexander the Great taking up arms against Darius III of Persia. The house was named after another famous find, a bronze statue of a faun. Both are now on display at the National Archeological Museum of Naples. The most impressive art work on site is a marble floor set in a complex geometric pattern.
Public baths were a common feature in even the smallest city in the Roman Empire as few houses had private baths. Known as thermae, the public baths were open to all social classes, including slaves, although men and women bathed separately. They served as an important place for people to meet, as well as to wash. The system of heating the rooms worked by running heated water through the cavities in the wall. Pompeii had three sets of pubic baths: The Stabian, Forum and Central Baths. The Stabian Baths are the oldest preserved public baths from anywhere in the Roman Empire. Located near the Forum, The Forum Baths are the smallest public baths in Pompeii, and the most elaborately decorated. The Central Baths were still unfinished when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The baths had no separate male and female sections, meaning that men and women would have had separate bathing hours.
Built around 70 BC, the amphitheater of Pompeii is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheaters in the world. It was also the earliest Roman amphitheater built of stone; previously, they had been built out of wood. The next Roman amphitheater that was built from stone was the Colosseum in Rome, which was created over a century later. The amphitheater was called a spectacula as the term amphitheatrum was not yet in use. It could host about 20,000 spectators, equal to the entire population of Pompeii. In 59 AD a violent riot broke out between fans from Pompeii and a rival town which prompted the Senate to ban any further games there for ten years.
Located outside Pompeii on the road that leads down to the city’s harbor is the well-preserved ruins of the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). The Roman Villa features wonderfully preserved frescoes that appear to depict a woman being initiated into the forbidden cult of Dionysus, the god of decadence known as Bacchus to the Romans. The term “mysteries” refers to this secret initiation rite. Set against a rich red background, the paintings are beautifully executed with a remarkable degree of clarity and detailing. With its large outdoor terrace and well-designed rooms, the home and gardens are just as impressive.
Those that did not flee the city of Pompeii before the eruption were doomed and their corpses were entirely buried by hot ashes raining from the sky. In 1870, Giuseppe Fiorelli used a technique based on filling the empty spaces where the corpses had decomposed with liquid plaster in order to produce perfect casts of the victims of the eruption. Once the plaster had hardened, the surrounding soil was removed and the figure was brought to light. This technique was used to produce a number of casts of human bodies, animals and objects. The building they were originally housed in suffered extensive damage in World War II, and they are now located in several places around the Pompeii ruins as well as the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The “Garden of the Fugitives” holds the largest number of victims found in one place, where 13 people sought refuge in a fruit orchard.