Ruins of Pompeii
Ruins of Pompeii information
The ruins of Pompeii are priceless. Much of the site's value lies in the fact that it wasn't simply blown away by Vesuvius in AD 79, rather it was buried under a layer of lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone). The result is a remarkably well-preserved slice of ancient life, where visitors can walk down Roman streets and snoop around millennia-old abodes and businesses (including a brothel).
As terrible as the eruption was, it could have been worse. Seventeen years earlier Pompeii (Pompei in Italian) had been devastated by an earthquake and much of the 20,000-strong population had been evacuated. Many had not returned by the time Vesuvius blew, but 2000 men, women and children perished nevertheless.
The origins of Pompeii are uncertain, but it seems likely that it was founded in the 7th century BC by the Campanian Oscans. Over the next seven centuries the city fell to the Greeks and the Samnites before becoming a Roman colony in 80 BC.
After its catastrophic demise, Pompeii receded from the public eye until 1594, when the architect Domenico Fontana stumbled across the ruins while digging a canal. Exploration proper didn't begin until 1748, however. Of Pompeii's original 66 hectares, 44 have now been excavated. Of course that doesn't mean you'll have unhindered access to every inch of the Unesco-listed site – expect to come across areas cordoned off for no apparent reason, a noticeable lack of clear signs and the odd stray dog. Audio-guides are a sensible investment and a good guidebook will also help – try the €10 Pompeii published by Electa Napoli.
At the time of writing, the Casa dei Vettii was closed for restoration. The Terme Suburbane, just outside the city walls, are visitable on weekends subject to prior booking at www.arethusa.net. It's here that you'll find the erotic frescoes that scandalised the Vatican when they were revealed in 2001. The saucy panels decorate the changing rooms of what was once a private baths complex.
The site's main entrance is at Porta Marina, the most impressive of the seven gates that punctuated the ancient town walls. A busy passageway now as it was then, it originally connected the town with the nearby harbour, hence the gateway's name. Immediately on the right as you enter the gate is the 1st century BC Tempio di Venere (Temple of Venus), formerly one of the town's most opulent temples.
Continuing northeast along Via Marina you'll hit the grassy foro (forum). Flanked by limestone columns, this was the ancient city's main piazza and the buildings surrounding it are testament to its role as the city's hub of civic, commercial, political and religious activity.
At its southwestern end sit the remains of the basilica , the 2nd century BC seat of the city's law courts and exchange. Their semicircular apses would later influence the design of early Christian churches. Opposite the basilica, the Tempio di Apollo (Temple of Apollo) is the oldest and most important of Pompeii's religious buildings. Most of what you see today, including the striking columned portico, dates to the 2nd century BC, although fragments remain of an earlier version dating to the 6th century BC.
At the forum's northern end is the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), which has one of two flanking triumphal arches remaining, and the Granai del Foro (Forum Granary), now used to store hundreds of amphorae and a number of body casts that were made in the late 19th century by pouring plaster into the hollows left by disintegrated bodies. The macellum nearby was once the city's main meat and fish market.
From the market head northeast along Via degli Augustali to Vicolo del Lupanare. Halfway down this narrow alley is the Lupanare, the city's only dedicated brothel. A tiny two-storey building with five rooms on each floor, its collection of raunchy frescoes was a menu of sorts for its randy clientele.
Heading back south, Vicolo del Lupanare becomes Via dei Teatri. At the end you'll find the verdant Foro Triangolare, which would originally have overlooked the sea and the River Sarno. The main attraction here was, and still is, the 2nd century BC Teatro Grande, a 5000-seat theatre carved into the lava mass on which Pompeii was originally built. Behind the stage, the porticoed Quadriportico dei Teatri was initially used for the audience to stroll between acts, and later as a barracks for gladiators. Next door, the Teatro Piccolo (also known as the Odeion) was once an indoor theatre renowned for its acoustics, while the pre-RomanTempio di Iside (Temple of Isis) was a popular place of cult worship.
Terme Stabiane & Casa della Venere in Conchiglia
As it shoots eastward, Via Marina becomes Via dell'Abbondanza (Street of Abundance). Lined with ancient shops, this was the city's main thoroughfare and where you'll find the Terme Stabiane, a typical 2nd century BC bath complex. Entering from the vestibule, bathers would stop off in the vaulted apodyterium before passing through to the tepidarium and caldarium . Particularly impressive is the stuccoed vault in the men's changing room, complete with whimsical images of putti (winged babies) and nymphs.
Towards the northeastern end of Via dell'Abbondanza, Casa della Venere in Conchiglia (House of the Venus Marina) has recovered well from the WWII bomb that damaged it in 1943. Although unexceptional from the outside, it houses a gorgeous peristyle(a colonnade-fringed courtyard) that looks onto a small, manicured garden. And it's here in the garden that you'll find the striking Venus fresco after which the house is named.
Just southeast of the Casa della Venere in Conchiglia, gladiatorial battles thrilled up to 20,000 spectators at the grassy anfiteatro. Built in 70 BC, it's the oldest known Roman amphitheatre in existence. Over the way, lithe ancients kept fit at the Grande Palestra , an athletics field with an impressive portico dating to the Augustan period. At its centre lie the remains of a swimming pool.
Casa del Fauno
From the Grande Palestra, backtrack along Via dell'Abbondanza and turn right into Via Stabiana to view some of Pompeii's grandest houses. Turn left into Via della Fortuna and then right down Via del Labirinto to get to Vicolo del Mercurio and the entrance to Casa del Fauno (House of the Faun), Pompeii's largest private house. Covering an entire insula (city block) and boasting two atria at its front end (humbler homes had one), it is named after the delicate bronze statue in the impluvium (rain tank). It was here that early excavators found Pompeii's greatest mosaics, most of which are now in Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale . Valuable on-site remainders include a beautiful, geometrically patterned marble floor.
A couple of blocks away, the Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet) features one of the world's first 'Beware of the Dog' (Cave Canem ) warnings. To the north, the Casa dei Vettii on Via di Mercurio is home to a famous depiction of Priapus whose oversized phallus balances on a pair of scales…much to the anxiety of many a male observer.
Villa dei Misteri
From the Casa del Fauna, follow the road west and turn right into Via Consolare, which takes you out of the town through Porta Ercolano . Continue past Villa di Diomede and you'll come to the 90-room Villa dei Misteri, one of the most complete structures left standing in Pompeii. The dionysiac frieze, the most important fresco still on site, spans the walls of the large dining room. One of the largest paintings from the ancient world, it depicts the initiation of a bride-to-be into the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. A farm for much of its life, the villa's own vino-making area is still visible at the northern end.
If travelling to the scavi (ruins) by Circumvesuviana train (€2.80 from Naples, €2.10 from Sorrento), alight at Pompeii-Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station, located beside the main entrance at Porta Marina. Signs direct those arriving by car from the A3 to the scavi .