Ancient Rome



Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)


"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war." 

The Italian countryside around the Bay of Naples, called Campania, has always been noted for its beauty. In the days of the Roman Empire, its blue skies and magnificent scenery led many wealthy Romans to build villas there. The old and prosperous cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the quiet little town of Stabiae were among the many local summer resorts. On Aug. 24, AD 79, these towns were destroyed, and great stretches of the countryside were laid waste.

On that morning the great volcano Mount Vesuvius began to belch forth steam, gases, lava, and flames. Then began a hail of pumice stones up to 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) in diameter, followed by a torrent of white ashes. For nearly two days white ashes fell like snow on the doomed cities.

Most of the people of the two cities escaped as the eruption began. Those who sought refuge in cellars were suffocated by stifling sulfur fumes or crushed under falling roofs. In Pompeii alone about 2,000 perished. Its usual population was probably about 20,000, but the city may have been crowded with summer visitors. The most famous casualty of the great eruption was Pliny the Elder. He was in command of the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples and took ships across the bay to Stabiae in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue refugees.

When the cloud lifted it revealed widespread devastation. Herculaneum lay completely buried under more than 60 feet (18 meters) of mud and volcanic material. At Pompeii 8 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) of pumice and 6 or 7 feet more of ashes covered everything but the tops of buildings. So great was the alteration of the seacoast that Pompeii, which was a seaside town before the eruption, now lies far inland.

The thriving cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were never rebuilt. In the course of centuries they were forgotten. Then early in the 18th century a well digger turned up a marble statue on the site of Herculaneum. The local government soon did some excavating and unearthed other valuable art objects. The deep covering of Herculaneum, which had hardened to rock, made digging difficult, and the excavations were abandoned. In 1748 a peasant found traces of the buried Pompeii beneath his vineyard. Since then excavations have gone on, with interruptions, to the present. In 1927 the Italian government resumed the digging out of Herculaneum, and now large parts of the city are open to view.

These cities tell the story of Roman everyday life. A visitor may walk between rows of shops and houses, along street after street that still show the marks of the horses' hoofs and the ruts worn by chariot wheels in the paving blocks. On the walls may be read the scribbles of schoolboys, announcements of shops to rent and gladiatorial contests, and election notices scrawled in flaming red letters.

Public life as shown by the excavations centered in the forum, or marketplace, where temples adjoin business houses and offices. In the market stalls were found charred nuts, fruits, and loaves of bread left by dealers in their flight. A wall painting in Pompeii shows how peddlers of kitchen utensils and shoemakers plied their trades in the forum itself.

A short distance from the forum of Pompeii is a cluster of temples. With them is a great open-air theater, seating 20,000. Not far away are a smaller roofed theater, the palaestra, or athletic school, and the barracks of the gladiators. Here were found gladiators' swords and armor. Three public baths lie convenient to the forum and the palaestra. These are preserved well enough to show how great furnaces were used to heat water and to supply heated air for the rooms and how the bather proceeded from a warming room to a hot room, then to a cold room and outdoors again.

The story of private life in ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum is equally complete. The dwellings show a blank wall to the street, as many in Southern Europe still do. The occupants got their air and sunlight from a central court or a back garden. Opening off the great room, or atrium, are bedrooms--hardly more than cupboards--storeroom, dining room, and kitchen. In the kitchen is a raised hearth, and on top of this burned a charcoal fire for cooking. In houses in which there was a bath, this hearth provided heat for that as well. A water system brought water for the bath and sometimes for a fountain in the atrium. Bedrooms off the atrium are tiny cubicles, often furnished with no more than a low wooden bed. At Herculaneum some furniture is still complete though reduced almost to charcoal. Wall paintings and mosaic floors decorated the homes of the wealthy.

How people worked can be seen as well as how they lived. Outside the bakeries are great millstones that ground the grain, and inside is sometimes found kneading apparatus. A potter's workshop has two ovens, the dyehouses are provided with large lead kettles, and in a closet were found bottles containing colors. A tannery has vats and tools of bronze and iron. There are inns and wineshops with utensils for heating food and drink and great stone jars set in the counter for storing them.

Many thousands of smaller objects found in Pompeii and Herculaneum were taken to the museum at Naples for safekeeping. In the museum are paintings, statues, mirrors, coins, pens and ink bottles, and even the very food that some Pompeians were having for lunch on the day of the eruption as well as the pans in which it was cooked. In a smaller museum at Pompeii are death casts of some of the people themselves, for the ash that buried them formed a sort of plaster mold that preserved the outlines of their bodies. One of the most interesting casts from Pompeii is that of a watchdog. The creature was apparently forgotten and left behind as his master fled from the city. The dog was found still tied at his customary place in the entrance hall of the house.

The art treasures unearthed at Herculaneum--statues in marble and bronze and paintings--are far more extensive than those from Pompeii. At Pompeii the covering of volcanic material was much lighter than that at Herculaneum. Therefore the owners of houses were able to return and dig out many of their most valuable possessions. In some cases even the marble facing of buildings was removed. Herculaneum, however, was so deeply covered that no attempt seems to have been made in ancient times to recover anything of value. The most remarkable discovery at Herculaneum is 1,800 rolls of papyrus manuscript. They were badly charred, but hundreds have been unrolled and deciphered.

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* Because we believe primary sources of history far surpass secondary sources, most of the lives of the following individuals are taken from ancient historians such as Plutarch, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus