Ancient Italy and Vesuvius

A very important historical site is the located southeast of Naples and encompasses Mount Vesuvius and surrounding areas. Vesuvius, an active volcano, was 4200′ in elevation as of 2013, with a large crater 1000′ deep and 2000′ across; this formed after the last eruption in 1944. The area within 20 miles is home to 2 million people.

Vesuvius was dormant for centuries before the great eruption of 79 AD which buried Pompeii, Oplantis and Stabiae under ashes, and Herculaneum under mud. There have been a large number of eruptions since that time, with the most severe in 512 and 1632 (killed 3000 people). Activity has been substantial from 1660 to 1944.

Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption in 70 AD from Naples, and described it eloquently in written accounts to Tacitus. He likened the eruption as a growing pine tree sprouting branches as it rose. His father was actually killed trying to rescue people at Pompeii. The city had 10-20000 people living in it at the time; about 2000 were killed. Pompeii was first mentioned in written texts about 310 BC; by Roman times it had become an important seaport, and a vacation spot for Romans. The eruption buried Pompeii and other sites under 20′ of ash, pumice and volcanic material. Pompeii, along with Stabiae and Herculaneum, were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997.

Pompeii was discovered late in the 16th century, Herculaneum in 1709. Excavations began in Pompeii in 1748, and are still ongoing. The city is remarkedly well preserved (except for wood and similar materials). A significant=cant number of skeletal remains have been “preserved” as plaster castings, and many artifacts were also recovered. Most of these have been relocated to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The walls are about 2 miles in circumference, enclosing 163 acres. There are seven city gates, and three primary thoroughfares. The Forum was the center of religious, economic and municipal life, and encompasses temples, wool headquarters, meeting places for council and magistrates, a basilica a sports ground, theaters and baths. There are hundreds of houses, some luxury versions taking up a whole city block. Shops abound, and include bakeries, wool processing, gem cutting, baths, ceramics, toolmakers, foods, wines, lamps, fish sauce and so on. The excavations have unearthed a great historical site which has been extremely valuable for studying the culture and life of those times.


Herculaneum was also buried, but under a mass of tufaceous material 50-60′ deep. There were very few fatalities; evidently most inhabitants had time to escape. The low humidity of the materials has preserved wooden frameworks of houses, furniture, a boat, cloth fragments and even some food. There are many houses and shops in the ruins, along with public monuments including a sports ground, a swimming pool and baths.

Both ruins continue to be excavated and studied. Pompeii and Herculaneum are fascinating to visit, and should not be missed if you are in this part of Italy. The tours are generally well done, but one can wander as well. Allow a full morning for Pompeii, and 2 hours or so for Herculaneum. And check out Cantina del Vesuvio for a wine tasting and light lunch in between.


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