Imagine living in the richest city of ancient times. Resources are bountiful and life is grand. Every amenity and luxury surrounds you, and unlike in other cities during this time, simple plumbing and convenience is everywhere.
Such was the life for those who lived in Pompeii, Italy in the late part of 70 AD. There was even ancient pornography and gentlemen entertainment, brothel houses to suit every taste.
Those who woke up, began their day, and were sitting down to eat lunch on August 24, 79 AD had no clue that Mount Vesuvius would begin a tyranny of volcanic eruptions that would not stop for 24 hours. It would not spare those who lived in Pompeii, and neither would it spare those in the smaller, nearby towns in Herculaneum and Oplontis. A torrent of lava and ash raced down the massive mountain at 100 mph, burying everyone in its path before they could even react let alone escape.
In an event of biblical proportions. The people’s fear, despair and whatever they were doing at that moment was perfectly preserved in ash and hardened lava. This has given archaeologists a perfect time-line of the event as well as a historical look at this ancient culture – a window into the lives of those who lived at that time.
Note how these ash figures are desperately trying to cover their mouths, shield their unborn children, or trying to keep themselves from being crushed by the onslaught of debris and volcanic rocks.
Doctors had their surgical tools clutched in their grasps in the hope of helping others; the “dominas”, or women of the house, held on dearly to jewels and heirlooms; and slaves were found with iron rings around their ankles. Such items gave archaeologists valuable insight into who the bodies belonged to and what their shortened lives were about.
The city of Pompeii was for the elite Romans who could afford the seaside life of luxury and fortune. Yet, within hours, this beautiful city was partially buried under masses of volcanic ash, cooling lava and rocks.
Pompeii had aqueducts unheard of in this period of history which channeled the water to 25 city fountains. It had an amphitheater, at least four public baths, many private estates, and numerous businesses that catered to the persnickety tastes of the wealthy who lived there.
The streets of Pompeii resembled many cities around today. There were streets, highways and bustling traffic coming and going all of the time. And the nightlife was second to none.
The people of Pompeii appear to have worshiped a phallic god. Many objects in Pompeii had some erotic symbolism or art work bestowed upon it. Here’s a sign outside a Pompeii bakery.
The bakery sign above reads “Hic habitat felicitas”, meaning “Here lives happiness” or “Here lives good fortune”. The good fortune was believed to be anywhere the phallic god was worshiped and depicted.
At least 20,000 people inhabited Pompeii. The highest point of fortune, activity and population growth was realized at the moment the disaster struck. Near the edge of town, many people lived in villas or small groups of house boats (like palatial gated communities) similar to that of Venice.
Those who lived in Pompeii were quite used to earthquakes and less seismic volcanic eruptions. It was similar to a modern day Los Angeles. The people’s houses seemed to ebb and flow with the everyday annoyances of Mother Nature. This was why scientists believe that the majority of people did not flee or seek shelter. They thought this would be like any other day.
In 62 AD, a terrible earthquake transpired that burned the city down to the ground. However, much of the city was rebuilt. Imagine how grand it must have been before that earthquake!
One of the main concerns that those living in the city had was preserving their beloved (and infamous!) art. Scientists were able to recover many of the pieces that had been restored after the earthquake or were from a time period before the deadly eruption.
The reconstruction of the city was hampered by earthquakes that came more and more frequently. Nowadays, we would understand this as being a precursor to a horrific volcanic eruption. They were not aware of this at the time, of course.
Ironically, the eruption occurred after the festival observing the god of fire, Vulcanalia. Scientists believe that the main cause of death for those in Pompeii and the surrounding area was heat and/or ash suffocation. It is estimated that the temperature for at least 10 miles around Mount Vesuvius was 250 °C. Even if people had been in their homes or in a building, there would not have been any way they could have survived heat that excruciatingly high. Worse, the people were buried under as many as twelve layers of soil, up to 82 feet deep in total, which rained down heavily for at least six hours.
The excavation of Pompeii around the turn of the 20th century unearthed many erotic images of over-sized penises, even on the household items. This was so disturbing to those who found these items that they were either destroyed, reburied or locked away in the National Museum of Naples, Italy for over 100 years. The art has only made viewable by the public since 2000, and no minors are permitted to see the items unless an adult accompanies them.
Some, like this writer, speculate that Pompeii was the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, and the destruction of the city was divine and forthcoming. Some Christian tourists often don’t visit this wonderful and colorful part of history because of the sexual nature of the ruins.
To see more Pompeii art, go here.
To be fair, prostitutes in Pompeii made three times more than the average laborer or worker in the city. The sexual acts were particularly cheap for the males (or johns) in this city – in contrast to all other European towns. The inscriptions above the brothel houses, which were quite large and roomy, are too graphic to repeat. Children weren’t shielded from the constant imagery of phalluses at the time. In fact, it was common to put depictions of children and phalluses together because of fertility and the phallus god being one and the same.
There was one survivor of the Pompeii volcanic disaster. Pliny the Younger accompanied his father by boat to inspect the plume of volcanic ash coming from the mountain. At this point, no danger or harm ensued, and those in Pompeii had no idea what was about to occur. It had been Pliny and his father’s good fortune to see the eruption as it began while bathing on the outskirts of town. Pliny the Younger retold his account of the events that fateful day in writing, watching helplessly as his hometown was quickly engulfed in volcanic debris. Here’s a quote from that eerie tale:
“I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.”
The Pompeii disaster of 79 AD was one of the worst days in history. We have a lot to learn about the fragility and short-lasting tenure of humanity.