Vices and virtues of Pompeii exposed

by Joseph Lieberman

Imagine if an entire town could disappear yet be preserved intact, sealed timeless in eternity. Then imagine that surprised excavators nearly 1,700 years later uncover this natural time capsule to reveal what life was really like in the ancient world.

This is essentially what happened to the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum from their destruction Aug. 24, 79 A.D., until their rediscovery in the 18th century. When Mount Vesuvius erupted on that fateful day long ago, over 20,000 people were frozen into history exactly as they sat, slept, bathed or huddled in groups.

Herculaneum was entombed by a flood of wet mud which solidified into tufa rock to a depth of 7 meters, while Pompeii was buried by a deep layer of soft, dry ash and stone. This accounts for the difference in the way the people, along with the objects of their daily lives, were preserved and later brought to light again.

In Pompeii, the houses themselves are the attraction, with their colorful wall paintings and stone and metal sculptures. Because the solid tufa covering Herculaneum kept out the air, however, archaeologists could recover objects of wood and leather and even foodstuffs in kitchens — deeply aged but still recognizable.

Wine bars, so popular that they were located at almost every intersection, still held residues of liquid in large sealed earthenware jars stacked behind the counters. The wooden furniture which remains — tables, shutters, shelves and small ancestral spirit houses almost exactly like Japanese saidan — are all fragile blackened charcoal now, a result of the intense heat which accompanied the eruption.

Unlike neighboring Pompeii, most of Herculaneum’s residents were able to flee before the destruction, except for a few who were caught in the mud flow. Most of the hundreds of skeletal remains in the museum came from an ancient cemetery. By contrast, while skeletons occur in Pompeii, the most startling discoveries were the hollow impressions of bodies which had become dust, leaving molds of their shapes in the hardening ash, even down to the details of laces and folds in clothing.

It was the superintendent of ruins, Giuseppe Fiorelli, who first revealed these figures in 1860 by pouring wet plaster into the mysterious hollow spaces. Today new ones are still being discovered and visitors may look upon dozens of plaster casts of ancient Pompeians, which include old men, mothers beside children, even a watch dog still chained to its post — all frozen in poses in which they were when death suddenly conquered this corner of the Roman Empire.

It is not their deaths, however, but their lives which attract so many visitors to Pompeii. Their vices and virtues have been recorded nearly intact, not only by their household goods and artistic possessions, but by their own handwritten advice, political slogans, witticisms, pornography and messages of love scribbled on hundreds of walls.

“You envious man, split with jealousy, don’t attack one who is better looking than you,” says one.

“Restitutus [a man's name] is a famous deceiver of trustful girls.”

“If anyone is looking for tender embraces in this city, no girl is receptive to sweet talk.” Very little has changed in human nature in nearly 2,000 years.

An unusual two-story-tall building opposite a wine bar is normally closed to the public.

“It’s not that we don’t want people to see this,” says Dr. Luigi Garzillo, a supervisor of continuing excavations. “It’s only that what you find inside is so fragile.” Faded erotic wall paintings adorn the upper area of the hallway in this structure known as the Brothel of Pompeii. They are very explicit, yet the purpose they served was quite practical, apart from titillating potential customers.

“Pompeii was a commercial center,” Garzillo explains, “and tradesmen journeyed here from places where language was different. Most of them could not read nor write. By pointing up to these paintings, they could easily communicate which action they wished to experience with the prostitutes who worked here.”

After passing through this hall, from which tiny bedrooms open on both sides (curtains had been used as doors to preserve modesty), there is a kind of podium at the end. “Where the money was taken,” Garzillo says, “and a candle burned as a timer. When not busy, the girls would call down and wave from the upper floor to patrons at the bar across the street, to drum up business.”

Just behind the podium there is a washroom. “There was no soap, no tissue or toilet paper back then,” says Garzillo, “but even the smallest town had its public bath. So here also, all who entered had to wash certain parts of the body first. While doing so they were also covertly inspected for venereal disease.”

The much-used beds are still there, exactly as they were in the year 79. The reason? They are made of stone! Naturally they would have been covered over with straw mattresses to soften the encounter, but it still must have been a pretty rough ride.

In other homes and villas, lascivious wall paintings, phallic sculptures and even racy wind chimes were found, but the Pompeians were not especially obsessed with sex. These provocative artifacts were merely reflections of standard Roman values in that period just before Christianity took root. Venus was the patron deity of the city. Sex and fertility were linked as a celebration of life, not a guilt-laden sin.

When serious excavation work was begun in 1748, however, an effort was made to erase or ignore all traces of the eroticism that had flourished in ancient times. This was because these first attempts to unearth the treasures of Pompeii were sponsored by Maria Amalia Cristina, the young wife of the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. To expose this genteel lady to such vulgarity would have been inappropriate back then.

Nevertheless, the Bourbons did not even feign interest in archaeology. Their motives were pure greed, seizing an opportunity to expand an already sizable collection of art with relics from an antique world. Luckily, true researchers were on the scene within a generation.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was not the greatest ever recorded, nor the most destructive, but it was unique in being the only one to hand down to us a dusty but intact page of history written in fire and ash.

Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) are about 30 minutes from Naples Station via the Ferrovia Circumvesuviana train, which runs around the bay to Sorrento.