Pompeii: History, Reconstruction, and Architecture of the Ancient Italian City

PompeiiCredit: Altair4 Multimedia

Pompeii, the ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples, boasted an assortment of baths, houses, temples, public structures, graffiti, frescoes, and even a gymnasium and a port. But more than any of these antediluvian avenues, the city is best known for our fascination with disaster for over 400 years, after its rediscovery way back in 1599 AD. In fact, the site of Pompeii has been a popular tourist destination for over 250 years – thus merging an unfortunate episode of history and the innate level of human curiosity. However, beyond just the ‘popular’ impact of the disaster, there was the historical city of Pompeii – a thriving Roman settlement with over 11,000 in population. To that end, in this article, we will aim to present the history, reconstruction, and architecture of this ancient city that was influenced by various people of Italy, including the Oscans, Etruscans, Greeks, Samnites, and Romans.

The Origins of Pompeii and its Etymology (circa 8th Century – 5th Century BC)

Pompeii, Italy: Stone Stele with Oscan inscription. Credit: Monopthalmos (Flickr)

Delving into the origins of Pompeii, the first known evidence of proper habitations in the area (south-western part of Italy) possibly harks back to the Bronze Age. Fast forwarding to centuries later, a juncture close to the mouth of River Sarno was occupied by five villages of the Oscans, an Italic people from 8th century BC.

By circa 740 BC, the area came under the influence of the Greeks – who were known have established their trading colonies in the Campania region. And it was the Greeks who probably endowed Pompeii with its first urban character, by building a Doric Temple that later became the focal point of a forum and introducing the cult of Apollo. Over time, Pompeii, with its advantages of favorable climate and rich volcanic soil, was transformed into a safe port used by maritime powers like the Greeks and the Phoenicians.

In terms of etymology, it appears that Greeks already observed the potent nature of Vesuvius, as can be discerned from their myth (interpreted by the Romans) that describes how Hercules defeated earth giants in the Phlegraean Plain (or ‘plain of fire) on route to Sicily. Thus the nearby town of Herculaneum may have been named after this mythical narrative of Hercules.

Furthermore, according to one ancient Roman account, Pompeii comes from pumpe – the procession that commemorates the hero’s victory over the giants. However, on the academic side of affairs, many scholars believe Pompeii is possibly derived from pompe – meaning ‘five’ in Oscan, thus once again alluding to the original five villages on the site. Yet another hypothesis states that the name is derived from gens Pompeia – the Romanized family name.

In any case, reverting to history, by the 6th century BC, the local Italic inhabitants and the Greek colonists had merged into a single community of Pompeii. This strengthened nature of the Pompeii urbanites is also mirrored by the tufa city walls that guarded the settlement. However, by the late 6th century (circa 524 BC), the Etruscans arrived in the region and possibly took commercial control of the city, while preserving its political autonomy – thereby making Pompeii one of the members of the Etruscan League of Cities.

The settlement, by then, already functioned as a regional trading hub with its typical urban character comprising a market square (forum), necropolis, and limestone walls. But the Etruscan influence on Pompeii was cut short after just five decades, with the Greek city of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, inflicting a heavy naval defeat on the Etruscans in the Bay of Naples, in circa 474 BC.  

The Samnite Interlude (circa 424-290 BC)

Samnite Warriors. Source: Weapons and Warfare

Quite intriguingly, even the ‘new found’ Greek political might in Pompeii was short-lived, with the Campania region, in turn, being invaded by the Samnites, a warlike Italic people originally hailing from the south-central part of the peninsula.

The city itself had already begun to show signs of deterioration since circa 450 BC, with dilapidation of various urban areas and lack of offerings made at the Temple of Apollo. And possibly, by circa 424 BC, Pompeii was wholly conquered by the Samnites, and the settlement, along with other proximate cities like Capua and Nola, gradually adopted the characteristics and architectural styles of their Italic overlords.

To that end, while the Samnites were known for their proclivity towards martial pursuits, archaeological evidence has also alluded to the cultural and architectural achievements of these people. For example, recent excavations have revealed the remains of a full-fledged Samnite temple within the confines of Pompeii.

Dated from circa 4th-3rd century BC, the structure was dedicated to Mefitis, the Samnite equivalent of Venus, who was also venerated in volcanic areas and swamps as the personification of poisonous fumes emanating from the earth. In addition to the temple, archaeologists have also found a Samnite tomb, along with objects and artifacts, like lamps, terra cotta work, seashells, coins, and a bath. The latter ‘bath’ feature was possibly used for what historians have called ‘sacred prostitution’. In the ritual, the betrothed women were required to lose their virginity for a coin before their actual marriage.

The Roman Pompeii (circa 290 BC – 62 AD)

Pompeii
Source: Ciao Florence

Interestingly enough, in spite of political control of the Samnites over Pompeii in the 4th century BC, the era also brought forth nascent levels of Roman influence in the city – possibly because it hosted a part of the Roman army during the Latin Wars, circa 343 BC.

And by the time of the Third Samnite Wars (298–290 BC), residents of Pompeii sided with the ascendant Romans who ultimately triumphed over the Samnites – resulting in the hegemony of the Roman Republic in the Italian peninsula. Consequently, Pompeii was awarded the status of a socii (akin to an allied state with semi-autonomous powers and Roman protection).

Over the period comprising the next centuries, Pompeii was transformed into an important port in the Bay of Naples. The trading hub was also noted for exporting goods such as garum, olives, figs, cherries, apricots, along with vegetables like onions and cabbages. But the characteristic item associated with the thriving city arguably relates to wine – the product of the rich volcanic soil that provided the ideal conditions for growing of grapes. Additionally, Pompeii served as the importing point for various exotic commodities, including sandalwood, spices, silk, and even foreign animals for the arena.

The opulent mercantile scope was complimented on the architectural level, with the erection of bigger walls with double parapets, paving of wider streets in most parts of the settlement (that were innovatively repaired by using molten iron), and building of various structures ranging from shops, taverns, thermal baths, aqueducts, schools to launderettes, brothels, slave-quarters, domus (large Roman residences), and large villas (many dating from the 2nd century BC, showcasing their Greco-Roman styles).

The main Triangular Forum of the city (named after its geometric triangle shape) also underwent through a revitalization, with the construction of the Basilica (courthouse), Temple of Jupiter, and the Macellum (provision market). Moreover, Pompeii was known as a resort and a popular retreat for the upper classes from across the Roman Republic.

On the political side of affairs, in spite of Pompeii’s allied status with Rome that was even maintained during the mercurial times of the Second Punic War, the inhabitants of Campania (including Pompeii) finally revolted against the Roman Republic in circa 91 BC – due to their perceived lack of rights when compared to Roman citizens. This led to the Social Wars (91-88 BC), an event that once again resulted in a Roman victory.

However, as a means to assuage the semi-autonomous cities and polities, the Republic offered Roman citizenship to all its Italian allies, thereby resulting in the complete Romanization of Italy. As for Pompeii, the city was successfully besieged by Sulla during the war. Consequently, it came into the fold of the Roman authority and was settled by around 5,000 of Sulla’s veteran legionaries. From that point on, Pompeii was ruled as a Roman colony called Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum – and the town was further revitalized with a formation of a local senate and the building of an Amphitheater.

The Wrath of Vesuvius (62 – 79 AD)

 
The above animation made by the Zero One team was showcased at a 2009 exhibition named aptly as the ‘ A Day in Pompeii’, in the Melbourne Museum. Suffice it to say, the exhibition used 3D renderings to present a more accurate picture of the impending disaster that took place in 79 AD, and its baleful effects in the span of 48-hours surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 

Pompeii (and the region of Campania), known for minor seismic activities, was afflicted by a massive earthquake in 62 AD. As a consequence, a great number of structures, including temples, roads, houses, collapsed, while fires and smoke made their severe presence felt in many corners of the city. In spite of the ensuing anarchy and a significant number of casualties, parts of the infrastructure and forum were rebuilt, including the Central Thermal Baths. Many new structural projects were also initiated, like the Temple of Vespasianus and the Temple of Lares.

And while Pompeii experienced increasing degrees of seismic activities in the following years, the catastrophe struck in the year 79 AD, when Vesuvius erupted. Shrouded by displays of smoke, fire, explosions, and layers of pumice particles, the city was soon covered in flecks and fragments of ash discharged by the eruption.

And while the buildings were already beginning to collapse from the weight of such heavy deposits, the ‘shock-and-awe’ came forth hours later – in the form of destructive waves of superheated volcanic matter and gas (pyroclastic flows) from the imploding cloud over the volcano. According to some studies, it might have been the heat rather than asphyxiation (caused by ash) that resulted in many untimely deaths inside the buildings.

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 around: 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.

Reconstruction of Pompeii –

 

However, as we mentioned before, beyond just the ‘popular’ impact of the disaster, there was the historical city of Pompeii – a thriving Roman settlement with over 11,000 in population. In fact, by the late 1st century AD, Pompeii was known for its export of wine and its resort-like characteristics (which explains the bevy of ancient ‘holiday homes’ in the city). To that end, the folks over at Altair4 Multimedia have concocted a superb animation (above) that aptly presents the historicity of Pompeii, before it was ‘marred’ by catastrophic events.

Researchers have also been able to recreate a Roman domus (large house) inside Pompeii that existed before the natural disaster of 79 AD. Envisaged as a continuation of the Swedish Pompeii Project (now overseen by Sweden’s Lund University), the authentic reconstruction project was led by archaeologists Anne-Marie Leander Touati – with the experts utilizing 3D scanning and even drone technologies.

 

Architecture of Pompeii –

Forum –

Pompeii
Credit: Klagyi (Shuttershock)

The animation starts off with the Forum of Pompeii, which like in many Roman cities, pertained to the political as well as the commercial heart of the settlement. To that end, the Forum of Pompeii, rectangular in its plan, consisted of the principal municipal offices (including the tabularium), the courthouse (known as the Basilica), some of the main temples (including the Capitolium) and the bustling macellum (market).

Interestingly enough, archaeological evidence has suggested that before the calamitous eruption of Vesuvius there were plans undertaken by the Roman city council to rather deck up and expand the forum area.

Basilica –

Source: RomanArtLover.it

In its core design, the Roman basilica was inspired by the Greek stoa, a spatial scope that was basically conceived to provide shelter to merchants and other small enterprises at the edge of the agora. In any case, the basilica of Pompeii probably served as a courthouse of the city, and it was built in late 2nd century BC, by the south-west corner of the forum.

The building in itself was pretty large, with its external dimensions measuring 226 x 86 ft. The complementary inner portico is formed by 12 x 4 columns and measures 150 x 42 ft, giving shape (and endowing volume) to the main hall comprising a long columnar nave surrounded by an aisle.

Temple of Apollo –

Pompeii
Original Source: Panoramio

The cult of Apollo was prevalent in the regions of Campania since at least 6th century BC, thus even corresponding to the Samnite period. The subsequent sanctuary to the god was finally expanded and embellished with the Temple of Apollo, as shown in the video, in 1st century AD – possibly after the earthquake of 62 AD. This final form and expansion of the complex were patronized during the rule of emperor Nero, and as such the temple itself exhibited architectural features that fused both Italic and Greek styles.

To that end, the structure showcases a rectangular plan, with the entire perimeter surrounded by a whopping 48 columns. And in line with classical architecture, the inner cella raised atop the podium was reached through a long flight of steps. Now interestingly enough, one of these columns, that visually marked the cella of the god, also contained a sundial. And since we brought up gods, the Temple of Apollo housed two statues, with one depicting Apollo with his arrows and the other representing Diana – both currently kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Temple of Jupiter –

Photo by Peggy Mekemson

The main religious structure of Pompeii arguably pertained to the Temple of Jupiter (also known as the Capitolium). Located on the northern side of the Forum, the structure was possibly built in 150 BC and dedicated to the triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. In essence, the Temple of Jupiter mirrored the ‘Romanization’ of Pompeii, a city that was previously inspired by the Greeks, in spite of the earlier years of Samnite rule. To that end, this particular complex symbolized the effect (and scope) of Roman architecture in religious and civic life, with purely Italic design motifs dominating the facades of the large structure.

In terms of volumetric dimensions, the base podium of the Temple of Jupiter alone measures around 121 x 56 x 10 ft or 68,000 cu ft. And as for the importance of the complex, the main hall that housed the statues of the gods also enclosed a lower chamber that was used for storing sacrificial offerings as well as the treasury of the city. Unfortunately, a significant part of the temple was already destroyed by the earthquake of 62 AD, and thus the smaller Temple of Jupiter Meilichios was the primary seat of religious activities, circa 79 AD (when Vesuvius erupted).

Odeon and Amphitheater –

Pompeii

Pompeii has the distinction of having Italy’s oldest known permanent stone theater, and the structure was possibly constructed in 70 BC after the full-fledged Roman conquest of the settlement. Interestingly enough, in spite of its public status, the amphitheater was privately funded, probably by two local officials Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius, in a bid to enhance their influence. In any case, the theater, mainly known for hosting gladiatorial fights, was big enough to accommodate 20,000 people, thus suggesting how spectators also came from outside Pompeii, especially from the nearby towns.

In fact, according to ancient sources, in 59 AD, spectators from the nearby town of Nuceria fought against the ones from Pompeii in an ensuing riot. As a result, Nero had to impose a ban on games inside the Pompeii amphitheater for 10 years.

The Villas of Pompeii –

Pompeii
Source: Pinterest

In the ‘section’ of villas, the Altair4 video starts off by showcasing the Villa of Diomedes, which was designed as a pseudo-urban domus, originally built by one M. Arrius Diomedes. Comprising elements of the typical Roman upper-class house, the residential compound boasted living areas, service rooms and even specific bathing zones.

These spatial features were complemented by gorgeous views of the proximate gardens and the distant sea from the triclinium (dining room) of the villa. The domus also had a lower section comprising a wine cellar that doubled as a supporting system for the peristyle around the garden. Unfortunately, the incredible architectural features were accompanied by grisly findings of around 20 ancient bodies left dead by the pernicious fumes of Mount Vesuvius, along with a silver key and a horde of 1356 sesterces (Roman coins).

The Altair4 video also presents a bevy of other villas, including the famed ‘House of the Faun‘ (Casa del Fauno in Italian). Easily one of the largest and impressive residences of Pompeii, the domus was possibly also one of the most luxurious aristocratic houses in all of the Roman Empire. Named after a statue of a dancing faun (that doubled as a basin for catching rainwater), the villa itself flaunted 32,000 sq ft in the area ( the equivalent of more than half of an American football field), thus encompassing an entire insula or city block.

And like the Villa of Diomedes, the domus showcased the typically sophisticated features of Roman residential architecture, along with its fair share of artworks and mosaics. In the latter category, archaeologists discovered the renowned ‘Alexander Mosaic’, composed of rare tesserae – that depicts the Battle of Issus in unison.

Macellum of Pompeii –

Photo by Peter Kwok

Located on the forum of Pompeii, the macellum was envisaged as a sort of a provision market for the burgeoning city. Interestingly enough, initially archaeologists were confused by the remnants of twelve column bases at the center of the structure that hinted at its status as a pantheon. However, later excavations also led to the discovery of cereals, fruits, bones and fish scales in the vicinity, thus proving that the structure functioned as a market.

In any case, a particular section of the macellum on the eastern side is entirely dedicated to the imperial cult, which in itself suggests the crucial role of Roman rulers in the first century of the empire. The building also exemplifies the unique Roman tendency to fuse economic and public domains, which not only translates to the discovery of items relating to food and provisions but also pertains to intricate wall frescoes bedecking the market.

The Thermal Baths –

Photo Credit: Carole Raddato (Flickr)

Carrying on with the ‘public’ tradition of Roman life, the thermal baths (thermae) of Pompeii had a bevy of interesting features, including cold baths, tepid baths, and even hot baths. In fact, the city boasted three thermal complexes, with the Stabian Thermal Baths being the oldest – dating back from the Samnite period; succeeded by The Forum Thermal Baths that were originally constructed under the orders of Sulla in 1st century BC.

These were followed by the Central Thermal Baths – a massive complex (largest among the three) built after the earthquake of 62 AD, comprising a whole insula. Designed in a more spatially efficient manner than its predecessors – to better serve the citizens, these baths were accompanied by the gymnasium, sudatorium (vaulted sweating-room) and ‘unisex’ rooms that catered to both the genders.

And as for the water heating scope used in Roman thermae, the architectural feature entailed the use of hypocaust systems. Simply put, the contemporary engineers devised an ancient variant of underfloor HVAC heating via a proximate furnace, often complemented by running heated water through the cavities in the wall. The Augustan period also saw the development of window panes. These relatively rudimentary specimens (utilized for preventing cold drafts into the baths) were probably rough cast into a wooden frame on top of a layer of sand or stone.

Temple of Vespasianus –

Pompeii
Source: Rome Art Lovers

Located on the eastern side of the main forum, the Temple of Vespasianus was built after the earthquake of 62 AD, as a sanctum of worship for the cult of the Emperor. According to pompeii.org.uk –

A central door leads into a space in front of the inner sanctuary which is bounded on the front side by four columns. Inside these, a staircase on either side led up to a podium on which stood the cella containing the cult statue. Behind the sacellum were three rooms used for the officiators both of this temple and of the adjacent Temple of the Lares which could be reached via a communicating doorway. A marble altar with bas-relief sculptures can be seen in the center of the sanctuary.

Temple of the Public Lares

Another religious structure built after the earthquake of 62 AD, the Temple of The Public Lares(guardian deities in ancient Roman religion) was dedicated to Pompeii’s tutelary gods. Intriguingly enough, the building was started as a means to assuage the divine entities after the natural calamity; though the construction was probably not wholly complete by 79 AD, the year of the greater disaster brought upon by the eruption of Vesuvius. As for its interesting architecture, once again according to pompeii.org.uk –

Although it had not been completed at the moment of the eruption, what remains suggests that its architecture was quite unusual. It was completely open on the side looking onto the Forum and could be reached through a portico adjoining the colonnade on the Forum, the bases of which are still visible. The temple had no roof and was floored with colored marble arranged in a geometrical design. In the center stood an altar, of which few remains can now be seen. In the rear wall, a niche probably housed three statues of the town’s gods. On either side of the entrance were two alcoves with inset niches where the statues of other Lares undoubtedly stood.

Triangular Forum –

Pompeii
Reconstruction of the Foro Triangolare

The Triangular Forum (Foro Triangolare in Italian), named after its geometric triangle shape, was possibly laid down by 2nd century BC, on the southern part of the hill where Pompeii was founded. In fact, the later building project was undertaken on the huge natural terrace that already housed some of the major sacred areas of the town, circa 6th century BC. Used for horse races and other forms of public entertainment, the interior of this forum is covered on three sides by a colonnade, while the southern-side was kept ‘open’ for an unobtrusive view of the surrounding panorama.

The southern part of the Triangular Forum also comprises a Doric temple (dedicated to Athena and Heracles) and a tholos (burial structure characterized by its false dome), constructed around what must have been a sacred well. A nearby building, shaped like a wishbone, consists of a smaller enclosure which had the tomb of a very important aristocrat (possibly one of the major patrons of the original settlement).

Temple of Isis –

Pompeii

Considered among the first discoveries made at the site of Pompeii in 1764, the Temple of Isis preserved its relatively small but delicately ornate facades, after being rebuilt post 62 AD. Frequented mostly by women, freedmen, and slaves, Ancient Vine describes the structure as such –

The Temple has a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architectural features. This is not surprising since the Roman architecture of this period was very ornate, often used bright colors, and borrowed and mixed styles from many eras. There were many statues in the Temple of Isis and the portico walls were covered with elaborate murals. To the left of the temple was a small roofless structure containing a tank that may have held the sacred water from the Nile, which was very important in many Isis ceremonies. In the rear of the sanctuary was a room containing a marble table where sacred meals were probably 

Other Features –

Restored kitchen inside Pompeii. Credit: Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii

The video also showcases a flurry of other fascinating features that were present in ancient Pompeii, including the Fullonica and the Torcular uvarum. To that end, the Fullonica di Stephanus was a three-storied launderette that served the rich and noble Roman families of the city, circa 1st century AD.

Interestingly enough, historians have visualized how the establishment also provided food and refreshments to its famished attendants, while the extravagant patricians sent forth their expensive togas for washing. In line with the prevalent Roman practice, these garments were cleaned in imposing containers by using a composition of clay and urine.

Researchers have actually been able to restore the actual complementary kitchens of the Fullonica launderette. These ‘refurbished’ kitchens aptly glimpse into the ancient techniques and equipment for cooking food. Harking back to a period 2,000 years ago, the restorations showcase how the Romans cooked their food over specifically-made troughs that accommodated burning charcoal. Food like meat, fish, and vegetables was then put on grills that rested atop the flaming charcoal while accompanying dishes like soups, stews and gravies were concocted in pots and pans that were held by special tripods over the heated troughs.

And finally, in addition to food, there were drinks to consider – and this is where the torcular uvarum mechanism came into prominence. Essentially designed as a press for grapes, the tool was operated by dedicated personnel to extract the juice.

Featured Image Credit: Snippet From Altair4 Multimedia YouTube Channel

Other Online Sources: Smithsonian / Ancient Encyclopedia

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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