Pompeii—Where Time Stood Still
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN ITALY
KITCHENS with pans on the hearth, well-stocked shops, waterless fountains, streets intact—all the way they used to be, in a city without inhabitants, empty and deserted. This is Pompeii, where it seems that time stood still.
Everything remains just as it was that catastrophic day more than 1,900 years ago when Mount Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking the bay of Naples, erupted. It buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and the surrounding countryside in ash and lava.
“The ancients,” says the book Pompei, “had only a vague idea of the volcanic nature of Vesuvius and were accustomed to considering it a verdant mountain where thick woods were interspersed with delightful vineyards.” But on August 24, 79 C.E., after a silence of many years, that mountain awoke with a tremendous explosion.
The Eruption of 79 C.E.
The volcano belched a column of gas, magma, and debris that darkened the sky and caused a terrible rain of ash and lapilli (small pieces of lava). Within two days Pompeii and a vast area of countryside were covered with a thick layer, to an average depth of eight feet [2.5 m]. While violent tremors continued to shake the earth, a giant cloud of poisonous gases, invisible but lethal, enveloped the city, gripping it in a deathly embrace. While Pompeii was slowly being buried, Herculaneum disappeared in an instant. According to the book Riscoprire Pompei (Rediscovering Pompeii), Herculaneum was submerged in a flow of “mud and volcanic debris to a depth that reached twenty-two meters [72 feet] near the shore.”
The reactions of Pompeii’s some 15,000 inhabitants were diverse. Only those who fled immediately managed to save themselves. Some, however, not wanting to abandon their homes and all that they contained, remained behind, hoping to avoid the danger. Others, anxious to save their objects of value, hesitated before deciding to flee, only to be crushed by the roofs of their homes, which collapsed under the weight of the ashes.
One example is the owner of “the house of the Faun,” who apparently could not bring herself to abandon her riches. “In all haste,” says Robert Étienne in his book La vie quotidienne à Pompéi (Daily Life at Pompeii), “the lady of the house gathered her most precious jewels—gold bracelets in the form of serpents, rings, hairpins, earrings, a silver mirror, a bag full of gold coins—and prepared to flee.” Terrified, perhaps by the falling ash, she remained indoors. “Shortly after,” continues Étienne, “the roof collapsed, burying the unfortunate woman and her treasures.” Others were asphyxiated by the poisonous gases that spread everywhere.
Those who hesitated had to run for their lives, over the layer of lava ash that had formed in the meantime. They lay where they fell, suffocated by the lethal inhalations and covered as a result of the insistent rain of fine ash. Their pitiful remains were found centuries later, with their valuables still beside them. The city and its inhabitants had been buried under a layer of ash over 20 feet [6 m] deep.
Yet, thanks to that fatal rain, even the city’s inhabitants have reappeared. Do you know how? Observe the casts of their bodies in the photograph on this page. How were they made? By pouring plaster of Paris into the voids left in the ash by decomposed flesh, archaeologists have enabled us to see the last agonized gestures of the hapless victims—“the young woman lying with her head on her arm; a man, his mouth covered by a handkerchief that could not impede the inhalation of dust and poison gases; the attendants of the Forum Baths, fallen in unseemly poses of the jerks and spasms of asphyxia; . . . a mother hugging her small daughter in a last pitiful and useless embrace.”—Archeo.
No Safety in Herculaneum
In Herculaneum, a few miles from Pompeii, those who did not immediately flee found themselves trapped. Many hastened toward the beach, perhaps hoping to escape by sea, but a violent seaquake prevented boats from putting out. Recent excavations on the ancient beach at Herculaneum have brought to light more than 300 skeletons. As they sought refuge under a terrace overlooking the sea, these people were buried alive by a terrible flow of mud and volcanic debris. Here, too, many had tried to save their most precious possessions: gold ornaments, silver vessels, a complete set of surgical instruments—all still there, useless, near the remains of their owners.
Time Stood Still
Pompeii bears eloquent testimony to the fragility of life in the face of the forces of nature. Like no other archaeological site in the world, the ruins of Pompeii and the surrounding areas provide a snapshot that enables modern scholars and the curious to scrutinize everyday life in the first century C.E.
The prosperity of the region was essentially based on agriculture, industry, and commerce. With intensive employment of manpower—slaves and freemen being hired daily—the fertile countryside produced abundantly. Many of the city’s activities were tied to the trading of foodstuffs. Any who visit Pompeii can still observe the mills for grinding corn, the vegetable market, and the shops of fruit sellers and wine merchants. You can see the buildings once used for commerce—for processing wool and linen and for spinning and weaving cloth on an industrial scale. With dozens of other small-scale industries, from the jeweler’s workshop to the hardware shop, these buildings, along with the houses, made up a city.
The narrow, once crowded streets are paved with blocks of stone. They are flanked by raised sidewalks and public fountains served by an ingenious system of aqueducts. A curious detail can be seen at the corners of the main streets. Like ancient predecessors of modern crosswalks, large raised blocks of stone set in the middle of the streets facilitated the flow of pedestrians and enabled them to avoid getting their feet wet when it rained. Any who drove carts in the city had to have a certain dexterity to avoid these raised stones. They are still there! Nothing has changed.
Not even the reserve that surrounded the private lives of the Pompeians resists the indiscreet gaze of moderns. A woman covered in magnificent jewelry lies dead in the arms of a gladiator in his barracks. Doors of houses and shops are flung wide open. Kitchens are on view, as if abandoned just minutes ago, with pans on the hearth, uncooked bread still in the oven, and large jars leaning against the wall. There are rooms decorated with splendid plasterwork, wall paintings, and mosaics, where the rich banqueted at ease, using silver cups and vessels of surprising refinement. Tranquil internal gardens are surrounded by colonnades and adorned with merry fountains now silent. Seen, too, are marble and bronze statues of exquisite workmanship and altars of household gods.
The life-style of the majority, however, was much more modest. Many who did not have cooking facilities at home frequented the numerous taverns. There, without paying much, they could gossip, gamble, or buy food and drink. Some of these must have been places of ill repute where, after serving drinks to the customers, the waitresses, often slave girls, worked as prostitutes. Besides the innumerable taverns of this kind, excavations have brought to light more than a score of other places of ill repute, often characterized by paintings and writings that are grossly obscene.
It Is Time to Act
The sudden destruction of Pompeii makes one reflect. Evidently, the thousands who perished there did not react with sufficient alacrity to the warning signs of imminent disaster—the repeated earthquakes, the explosions of the volcano, and the terrible rain of lapilli. They hesitated, perhaps because they did not want to give up their comfortable life and their possessions. Maybe they hoped that the danger would pass or that there would still be time to flee if things got worse. Sadly, they were mistaken.
The Scriptures inform us that today the whole world is in a similar situation. The corrupt society in which we live is alienated from God. It is about to be swept away suddenly. (2 Peter 3:10-12; Ephesians 4:17-19) All the evidence indicates that that time is near. (Matthew 24:3-42; Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:7-36) And the tragic remains of Pompeii stand as a silent witness to the folly of indecision.
[Box on page 24]
The recovery of various crosses in Pompeii, including one in plasterwork on the wall of a bakery, has been interpreted by some as evidence of the presence of Christians in the city before its destruction in 79 C.E. Is this a valid assumption?
Evidently not. To find “a full-blown cult of the cross as an object,” says Antonio Varone in his book Presenze giudaiche e cristiane a Pompei (Jewish and Christian Presences in Pompeii), “we need to wait until the fourth century, when the conversion of the emperor and the masses of pagans was to make such a form of veneration more consonant with their spirituality.” “Even in the second and third centuries and until the time of Constantine,” adds Varone, “it is very rare to find such a symbol in manifest relation to Christianity.”
If they are not Christian, what origin do such symbols have? Aside from doubts about the identification of this symbol thought to be a cross and the discovery in the same bakery of a painting of a divinity in the form of a serpent, there are “some extremely obscene finds that are also difficult to reconcile with the presumed Christian spirituality of the bakery’s tenant,” Varone says. He adds: “It is known that from the dawning of civilization, before ever becoming the symbol of redemption, the cross-shaped emblem was used with clear magical and ritual significance.” In ancient times, explains this scholar, the cross was considered capable of warding off or destroying evil influences and was used, more than anything else, as an amulet.
[Picture on page 23]
The Arch of Caligula with Mount Vesuvius in the background
[Pictures on page 23]
Above: Plaster casts of Pompeii’s inhabitants
Left: View of Arch of Nero and part of the temple of Jupiter
[Picture Credit Lines on page 22]
Vertical borders: Glazier
Photos on pages 2 (bottom), 22, and 23: Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei