Previously, we have talked at length about the glorious reconstruction of Pompeii itself and the events that unfolded during the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius. But beyond the scale of massive destruction, Pompeii often also tends to evoke the ambit of distinct tragedy, especially fueled by the visual cues related to its ruins and remnants of human remains. Relating to this poignant scope, the ruins of the House of Julius Polybius stand as a testament to the utter woe wrought by Vesuvius. To that end, in spite of its palatial nature and sturdy bearing (typical of a high-end Roman domus), the residence was not able to protect its inhabitants – “three adult males, three adult females of various ages, four boys, one girl, one child and one fetus in the last month of intrauterine life. The fetus was associated with the skeleton of a young (16 to 18-year-old) female.” (according to Claudio Scarpati, one of the volcanologists who studied the house)
The resourceful folks over at Altair4 Multimedia have created a superb animation that aptly presents the incredible architecture of the actual House of Julius Polybius (boasting an area of 7,500 sq ft) before it was destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The 3D reconstruction covers most aspects of the ancient Roman domus, ranging from the entrance fauces to the rear courtyard peristylium.
As for the historicity of the House of Julius Polybius, the stoa.org records say –
The two adjacent entranceways from the street, leading to seemingly separate parts of the house, make this house one of the more complex in the sample. It has been thought to have originally belonged to an old patrician Pompeian family of the gens Iulia but to have been in the hands of one of their freedmen at the time of the eruption. The seal of C. Julius Phillippus found in garden CC and graffito with his name in hall N have been used to suggest he may have been the last resident and that he had been a freedman of C. Julius Polybius, also a freedman.
Coming to the unfortunate (and rather cataclysmic) event that led to the demise of all twelve inhabitants of the large domus, it is believed that the residents decided to stay inside the confines of the house during the time of the eruption. And while that may seem to be a counterintuitive judgment on the part of the household, they probably reached the consensus in a bid to protect the aforementioned pregnant woman (who was bearing an 8-9-month-old fetus). To that end, the sturdy walls of the House of Julius Polybius were possibly better suited to at least provide the initial protection, as opposed to the streets where many died, while trying to escape, from collapsing roofs and larger structural sections. However, ultimately it was the smoke and ash emanating from the eruption that left its murderous trail – elements that couldn’t be shielded by the reinforced walls of the domus. As Scarpati said –
The position of some skeletons on the volcanic deposit indicates that some individuals were lying on beds at the moment of death. The first pyroclastic currents arrived from the north and overtopped the rear part of the house. The currents moved into the garden and advanced toward the front of the house. No escape was possible for the people there. The ash reached every corner of the house and suffocated its inhabitants.
A contemporary passage of the destruction of Pompeii rather mirrors this magnitude of doom. Pliny the Younger, described the scene of the disaster in letters written to Cornelius Tacitus, a friend of his. Written a few years after the event, one of the passages of a second letter reads like this –
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’Let us leave the road while we can still see,’I said,’or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
Other Sources: ArchaeologyChannel
Featured Image: Taken From Animated Clip / Credit: Altair4 Multimedia