Pompeii and Herculaneum are the only places in the world that show concretely the Roman ancient history, given that in these villages the time stopped in 79 A.D., when a strong eruption from the nearby volcano Vesuvius froze forever that decisive day.
Archaeological excavations have taken place in the southern Italy, close to Naples, and gradually bring finds forth, essentials to know and study the Roman society. They become also two of the most visited tourist destinations in Italy and in 1997 joined the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The eruption of Vesuvius and the historical testimony
Pompeii and Herculaneum were two prosperous cities located on the Gulf of Naples, and became respectively colony and municipality after some social conflicts. Besides being very populated by the common domus (= houses), many nobles chose this area to build their holiday residences, thanks to its natural beauty. The first real suspicion of an unusual natural event occurred in 62 AD when the area around Vesuvius was shaken by an earthquake that destroyed many buildings. Then, between 20 and 24 August 79 A.D., frequent tremors struck incessantly that area and water sources dried up.
“On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. […] A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine-tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches […]”
So Pliny the Younger, in a letter to Tacitus, described the sudden eruption of the mount Vesuvius that himself, together with his uncle Pliny the Elder observed from Miseno. Pliny the Elder was one of the victim of this natural disasters, aimed to rescue the fugitives with his ship. The sighted smoke was indeed a deadly mixture of carbon dioxide, sulfur, ash and lava, that initially rose into the sky and then fell rapidly on Earth.
The areas damaged by the eruption in 79 A.D.
The destructive force of the volcano Vesuvius affected the coastal area that extends on the slopes of the volcano, and which included Herculaneum, Torre del Greco, Torre Annunziata (Oplontis), Castellammare di Stabia and Pompeii. The first pyroclastic flows reached Herculaneum before reaching Pompeii. A great blasts of accelerated hot air rushed through Herculaneum, incinerating everything and sobering tableau of instant annihilation. A lot of inhabitants were killed and Herculaneum was spared the pumice. Then the winds that day blowing the fiery cloud over in the direction of Pompeii. Pumice, lapilli (small cooled pieces of lava), and volcanic bombs were dropping. In Pompeii the cluster made of hot ash destroyed everything immediately on its way, even citizens defeated by lava in the same positions they had during the flight. The same fate had also Torre del Greco, the thermal town Torre Annunziata and Stabia, where Pliny the Elder met his death to save of his friend Pomponianus.
Visit the archaeological sites today
The archaeological investigations to discover the remains of the cities submerged by lava started only in the mid-eighteenth century, when excavations began and continue until today even if the remains are open to public. The map of Pompeii is typical of a Roman imperial city, divided into two main roads, the cardine and the decumano that lead to all the main buildings: the temple Capitolium, the Basilica (the court), the triangular Forum, theaters , the home of the Surgeon, the house of the Faun, the house of the Chaste Lovers. It was also possible to recover and see many casts through plaster that was used to fill in the voids between the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allowed one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died. Herculaneum, rich trading city which is said founded by Hercules, is now well-preserved as well. You can visit the Baths, the College of Priests of Augustus, a theater, the House of the Bicentennial, the House of the Deer and the library within the Villa dei Papiri.