The fallen city in the shadow of the mighty Vesuvius
I’ve been told it’s overrated. It’s ‘too touristy’. It’s not as good as people thought.
It’s not a word I’d use to describe this landscape of time travel. Of destruction. Of death. Of incomprehension.
No, good is not the word I’d use to describe Pompeii.
It’s too easy to come here and view it as a tick list destination with a brochure and an eye on your watch. It’s too easy to commodify it as a ‘must see’.
Pompeii is not Big Ben. It’s not the Eiffel Tower.
It’s a great city, just like any of ours, but 2000 years in the past. Preserved by its own destruction. Decimated and yet still standing. Snuffed out by its ever-watchful mistress, the great Vesuvius.
She sits over it always. Down each street she is there at the end. Watching. Mulling. Brewing her next performance.
A city of ash and art
Pompeii is vast. It’s vast as it lies uncovered and it’s vast where still buried. It would take hours to walk every street, pause at every house.
Mosaics line corridors and squares. They seem to dampen footfall. Yes, here you can walk on most of them. A strange feeling when the Roman villas remaining in Britain preserve their mosaic floors with a militant attitude.
But Pompeii’s mosaics have survived far more than the feet of thousands. And they remain, beautiful and elaborate. Flowing through houses as though they aren’t exquisite artworks in their own right.
Columns still stand. The stone streets remain. Buildings have kept their walls, their rooms. Pompeii still lives, like a bare tree in winter. Except winter will never end here. The city is in stasis forever.
More than 1000 dead were found. Yet the city had many more. 15,000, perhaps 20,000. Where are they now? Many fled, but all? Are they still buried here, within the huge expanse not yet uncovered?
Walking the streets is a visceral experience. The concept is not uncommon. This walking where others have walked, thousands of year before. You can touch iron age settlements in Britain if you wish. Walk enough and you’ll trip over them.
But it’s different in Pompeii. Because it lay in its ash sarcophagus for almost 2000 years before it was touched again.
Two thousand years it lay sleeping. Resting. But never decaying.
And now I stroll around it under the fierce July sun. I walk into homes, no need to knock. Their inhabitants are long gone. Long dead. But their homes remain. Paintings cover walls, painted by Roman hands. Even wooden doors still stand, some encased in protective glass. Ancient wood, it survived all this time. Frozen in the dry heat of Campania.
The scale of what happened here is unimaginable. A violence one hundred thousands times greater in thermal energy than the Hiroshima bomb. An explosion of gas, molten rock and ash so enormous it altered the region’s landscape. It redrew the coastline. It destroyed so much and entombed the rest. Like ants in amber.
Entire towns and cities gone within 48 hours, buried under metres of volcanic matter.
What brings the reality home is not the event itself, but the extraordinary similarity between Pompeii and the lives we live today. Sitting snugly in the museums stand statues so perfect no sculptor now could improve upon.
Here lie rings and necklaces that you’d recognise in our high streets. There are keys near identical to those we use. There are coins the same as ours — same size, the same imprint of a monarch’s face, the same use.
The buildings that stand within Pompeii are no worse built than ours. Their floors are more beautiful, more hardwearing. Their courtyards are more luxurious than many of us would see today. They had underground sewage systems, public and private toilets, kitchens, bedrooms, bath houses.
The Pompeiians constructed aqueducts to bring freshwater into the city from miles away. Water was stored in lead-lined towers at height to create higher water pressure as it descended.
In short, life in Pompeii 2000 years ago was the same. They ran businesses, had shops, visited the doctor, attended school.
This is what you see as you walk through Pompeii.
It’s not ‘good’. It’s utterly phenomenal.
It’s real and breathtaking and so, so close. You can hear the Roman children running along the stone paving slabs. You can see the men chatting in the cool houses, their feet submerged in water to stave off the heat. You can feel the busyness. You can time travel here.
The scale of the city is so vast, I often found myself alone. Entire empty streets spread out in front of me. Vesuvius supervising my movements.
To say that Pompeii is ‘too touristy’ is to so utterly miss the point, it’s almost barbaric. To say it’s ‘overrated’ is to forget what Pompeii actually is. To say it’s ‘not as good’ as expected, is to be blind to human achievement.
To visit Pompeii is to walk streets as there were two thousand years ago. It’s to touch a wonder of the world. It’s to see human history as real as it can be. Pompeii is no simulacrum. It’s not once, twice, three times removed. It’s not a photograph. It is absolutely real.
To visit Pompeii is as close to time travel as we can get.