Everything aches! I couldn’t sleep because my back, hips, and feet were killing. That’s two days of sightseeing for you – Up Vesuvius and Up Pompeii!
For those of you who remember Frankie Howerd and the 1970s comedy Up Pompeii, Pup Pompeii is my worst pun yet. Just think yourselves lucky that there wasn’t a river nearby, or you might have got SUP Pompeii as well.
6 a.m. is not a time of day I’ve seen much of since we stopped working, but we decided it was the only way to visit Pompeii without endless queues and milling masses of humanity.
My commitment to the project was shaky. Even as we were walking there, I said to Mark,
“Shall we just not bother?”
That is the extent to which I hate crowds and commerciality, but it seemed silly to miss it when we were so close.
Our plan paid off, though we still had to queue. There were only twenty people ahead of us, but the system was so inefficient that it took half an hour to get through the turnstiles. Part of me wished we’d bypassed the queues with a guided tour, or ‘skip the line’ tickets, although we prefer to enjoy things at our own pace, rather than being hurried along by a guide in a group, and reviews suggested that ‘skip the line’ was more an aspiration than a guarantee.
They allow small dogs into Pompeii, but you must carry them if you go inside the houses. Carrying four is a bit of a stretch, so Mark and I simply took turns.
What struck me first was the vastness of the site. I’ve popped into the odd Roman villa in my time and expected to see something like that. I did not anticipate city walls with a two-mile (3.2 km) circumference, nor that three hundred years of excavations have still uncovered only two-thirds of 163-acres (66 hectares) – which left us with the area of roughly 60 football pitches to explore.
Historians suggest maybe 20,000 residents occupied the metropolis and its sprawling suburbs. Not big by today’s standards, but in 79 AD, most estimations of world population settle around 200-million – now merely the citizenry of a country, such as Nigeria or Brazil.
In 2022, nearly eight billion of us crowd the planet.
We immediately diverged from the throng and toured anti-clockwise, starting at the colosseum or amphitheatre. Visitors from the two other entrances, located to the southwest, make a beeline for the Forum, and follow proscribed routes that take in the best-known houses. It wasn’t difficult to lose ourselves in the rabbit warren of streets that led off the principal thoroughfares; a tactic which allowed us to savour the atmosphere with no-one else about. I was surprised to feel a real spiritual connection, particularly in such an A-Class tourist destination, and after experiencing such ambivalence about even bothering to visit at all.
The header shot shows The Fab Four next to the elliptical amphitheatre, which was built in 70 BC. Despite being among the world’s oldest, its short useful life means it is also one of the the best preserved. The term ‘amphitheatre’ derives from the Greek, amphitheatron. Amphi means ‘on both sides’ and theatron, ‘a place for viewing’. The stone structure measures 445 by 341 ft (136 by 104 m) and could seat 20,000. Sufficient capacity to accommodate spectators from Pompeii and the surrounding area.
In 58 AD, a bloody riot broke out between spectators from Pompeii and Nocera, after which the Senate in Rome closed the arena. They lifted the ban in 62 AD, presumably to cheer up the populace after the devastating earthquake that year. In 1971, the amphitheatre saw perhaps its first performance in nearly two millennia when the band Pink Floyd filmed Live in Pompeii.
I lined up The Fab Four in the stadium for a photo and declared,
“For those about to bark, we salute you!”
Inside the first house, I experienced an overwhelming sense of grief. In a way that history books could never convey, a chipped and faded patch of red-painted stucco still clinging to the wall underlined that this was someone’s home. That nearly two-thousand years ago, someone lived there and took pride in their surroundings. Along with thousands of others, they may have perished there too.
A walk around Pompeii is as close as you can get to time travel. It is an excruciatingly intimate window into the everyday activity of an ancient city. One whose vitality was snuffed out in an instant, then entombed for seventeen centuries beneath twenty feet (7 m) of volcanic ash. Protected from weather, looting and vandalism, it is the ultimate time capsule, preserved exactly as it was during the fifteen minutes it took for the ash cloud from Vesuvius to collapse and erase Pompeii’s splendour from the map, and eventually from memory.
In the bakeries, the ovens still contained loaves. We sought respite from the clamour and the heat in gardens that were elegant green oases, filled with tinkling fountains and exquisite statues. Our feet walked upon the same raised pavements the citizens used to go about their business, and we crossed streets on the same stepping stones, pondera, which kept their sandals clean and dry. Pompeii had no sewers. The roadways doubled as drainage channels for rain and wastewater, which also helped to sluice away human and animal waste.
We traced our fingers through grooves in the road made by their chariot wheels, clear enough to note their width, which was designed to accommodate the rear ends of two Roman horses.
When the Pythons asked what the Romans ever did for us, they forgot to mention one of my favourite facts of all time – that the dimensions of a Roman horse’s rump directly influenced the building of the space shuttle… but I’ll come back to that later.
We passed a thermopolia – an ancient Roman fast-food joint. So far, archaeologists have uncovered eighty-nine thermopolia in Pompeii. Along with other finds, they reveal amazing facts about the dining habits of the ancients. The wealthy preferred to eat at home in their rich villas, attended by their own slaves. Houses belonging to the poorer citizens were small, often only a single room. Few had kitchens, which tells us that Pompeii’s working classes lived on takeaway!
Circular holes in the thermopolia‘s counters house the teracotta dolia, which contained the hot food. A themopolium found in 2020 was painted with vivid frescoes of poultry, such as roosters and ducks, which acted as posters advertising its wares. Nearby, pots and vessels still had traces of fish and seafood inside.
So often, we say, “If these walls could talk…”
In Pompeii, they do. Thousands of pieces of graffiti allow the voices of ordinary citizens to echo down the centuries. We can hear their insults, love notes, jokes, epitaphs, adverts, shopping lists, political propaganda, and even recommendations for the best prostitutes.
One example reveals that on October 3rd 78 AD, ‘Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here’. This beats Kilroy’s doodle of a big-nosed man peering over a wall by nearly 2,000 years!
A verbal duel between Severus and Successus, competing for the affections of Iris, adorns the walls of the thermopolium of Prima.
“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl, named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.” Severus
“Envious one. Why do you get in the way? Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly.” Successus
“I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris but she does not love you.” Severus
Writing on the walls tells us that Epaphras was bald, that sheep-faced Lygnus strutted about like a peacock, and gave himself airs on the strength of his good looks, and that Corydon was a country bumpkin. We know the Gladiator Barracks saw some amorous action. Antiochus hung out there with his girlfriend Clithera, and only six women came to look up Floronius of the 7th legion, “too few for such a stallion”.
Curiously, a fragment of writing casts doubt over one of history’s most famous dates. The only eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD comes from Pliny the Younger. His two letters to Tacitus describe the explosion, and subsequent death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who lost his life trying to evacuate the residents of Pompeii by ship. The younger Pliny recorded that,
“On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew (my uncle’s) attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.”
Pliny described the eruption in such detail that volcanologists still refer to explosive eruptions like that of Vesuvius as ‘Plinian’.
Yet a charcoal inscription in the atrium of a home undergoing refurbishment is at odds with Pliny. The innocuous scrawling of ‘XVI K NOV’ denotes XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) or ‘the sixteenth day prior to the Calends of November’; a date you and I would call October 17th. Translation of the words after the date suggests that someone either ‘took oil to the pantry’ or ‘partook of food in an immoderate way’.
Experts point out that writing in charcoal would not last for nearly a year on the wall of a house, even if Roman builders did take more than their fair share of breaks to consume food immoderately.
Which suggests they wrote it after the accepted date for the eruption.
Other finds, such as autumn fruits like figs and chestnuts, a coin minted after August 79, and the heavier clothing worn by some victims, support the theory that Vesuvius did not erupt in summer. Even the pattern of the winds, which would have spared Pompeii from burial had they blown in a different direction, point to an autumn eruption.
Pliny the Younger was 17 when Pompeii was destroyed and wrote to Tacitus 25 years after the event. Pliny could have been mistaken, although since his original manuscript no longer exists, the error might not be his. Scribes made copies of Pliny’s letters, and they were translated many times. As well as the widely accepted 24th August, some versions do cite dates in September and October.
So, perhaps the charcoal scribblings of an unknown builder have rewritten history!
Within thirty minutes of leaving the campsite, I had bought my first piece of tat – a coaster portraying the rather striking black-and-white mosaic of a dog crouching and ready to pounce, along with the words Cave Canem – Beware of the Dog.
Cave has nothing to do with underground chasms. It comes from the same Latin root as caveat, as in Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware. The mosaic is in the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet. Since we were investigating Pup Pompeii, we had to find the real thing. To the joy of onlookers, when we did, The Fab Four lined up in front of it without being asked!
Rome’s canine connections go right back to the beginning. Remember Romulus, who founded Rome, was suckled by a she-wolf.
Many objects confirm that Romans kept dogs as guardians, companions, hunters, status symbols, hot water bottles, and warriors. They were also revered as an emblem of fidelity. Infrared analysis of a dog’s collar discovered in Pompeii reveals an inscription which praises the dog for saving its master’s life in a wolf attack. The archetypal mutt’s name, ‘Fido’, is the Latin word for ‘trust’.
Various artefacts also cast light on what types of dogs the Romans kept. The Cave Canem mosaic possibly depicts a Molossian, a forebear of the Neapolitan Mastiff, which was often adorned with a spiked collar and was used against wolves, or as an attack dog in war.
Among the fabulous mosaics in the house of Paquius Proculus, a rather regal lurcher-type dog guards the door – perhaps a Vertragus – ancestor of the modern Italian Greyhound. In the garden of Octavius Quarto, we also found a small marble statuette of a greyhound attacking a hare.
In 2020, archaeologists in Pompeii discovered the skeleton of a tiny adult dog, about 10 inches (25 cm) at the shoulder – the size of a Yorkshire Terrier or Maltese. Malta is just 60 miles south of Sicily, and the “Roman Ladies’ Dog”, Canis Melitae or Melitan, was an expensive status symbol in ancient Rome.
A touching dedication on a Roman marble tablet from the first century AD in the British Museum – contemporary with Pompeii – gives an insight into how Roman society regarded dogs. It is written in verse, from the point of view of a prized hunting dog, Margarita (‘Pearl’), from Gaul, who died giving birth. With allusions to the poetry of Virgil, who stated “Mantua gave birth to me”, the care taken over this memorial proves Margarita was clearly a very beloved family member.
Gaul gave me my birth and the pearl-oyster from the seas full of treasure my name, an honour fitting to my beauty.
I was trained to run boldly through strange forests and to hunt out furry wild beasts in the hills, never accustomed to be held by heavy chains nor endure cruel beatings on my snow-white body.
I used to lie on the soft lap of my master and mistress and knew to go to bed when tired on my spread mattress and I did not speak more than allowed as a dog, given a silent mouth
No-one was scared by my barking but now I have been overcome by death from an ill-fated birth and earth has covered me beneath this small piece of marble.Margarita
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. We found a willy carved into the road. In case you were wondering, it’s a signpost, directing clients towards the brothel. Now, as then, the bordello is well frequented, although the only relief today’s visitors get are erotic frescoes and crude graffiti (see what I did there?! Maybe I should have said reliefs.) By the time we arrived, it had a queue the length of Floronius, Italian Stallion of the 7th legion’s you-know-what, so we didn’t go in.
We loved just wandering the streets and taking it all in. We finished at the Forum, which is where most of the throngs were milling.
“This is how it would have been!” I replied to Mark’s grumblings, although we would have both preferred it to be deserted.
Approximately 465 ft (142 m) by 105 ft (32 m), the Forum runs north to south and faces the sleeping bulk of Vesuvius. It was the centre of commercial, cultural, political and religious life and is surrounded by Pompeii’s most important buildings. High on a raised platform, the Temple of Jupiter, king of the gods, dominates the Forum. Colonnades ran around three sides of the square, while the fourth was home to the Temple of Apollo.
I left Mark and the pooches sitting in the shade while I explored the Mensa Ponderaria and Apollo’s Temple. There, you can still find a statue of the god shooting a bow amid a forest of columns – forty-eight around the outside, and thirty more guarding the raised cella, the Temple’s most sacred heart.
The Mensa Ponderaria, which sits between the Temple and a granary, is a counter used to check weights and measures of goods. The Romans scored out inscriptions in the pre-Roman Oscan language when they upgraded to their own system of weights and measures. I wondered if it had provoked the same outrage seen among the UK’s drinking public when the EU tried to outlaw the pint as a measure of beer!
We both explored the Basilica, which served as Pompeii’s law court. There, I captured a picture of Kai shooting us his best Blue Steel look as I seated him on the remains of an immense column that would once have supported the ceiling.
In the main Forum area, plinths reveal the existence of statues, which were either lost or removed for renovation following the 62 AD earthquake, estimated to have measured around 5 or 6 on the Richter scale (‘moderate to strong’).
The striking monumental sculptures that graced the forum and its surrounds looked ancient, but were actually the work of a modern Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, who lived in Tuscany for many years. His ‘place on earth’ was Piestranta, ‘the city of marble’, which had large-scale foundries to cast his work, and quarries which once supplied Michelangelo.
Following a year-long exhibition, some of his sculptures are now permanent placements in Pompeii; the artist’s dream, although sadly, he passed away in 2014, two years before the exhibition.
His statue of Daedelus stares out from the ruins. In Greek myth, Daedalus was a craftsman and brilliant architect, father of Icarus, and represented knowledge and wisdom. A centaur graces the southern end of the Forum.
Looking at the classical style, I realised I had encountered Mitoraj’s work before, in the form of Eros Bendato – Eros Bound, affectionately referred to as ‘The Head’ in Kraków. I read that Mitoraj’s ‘signature’ is that he models the lips of all his sculptures on his own. With veils, bandages, and fragmentation (his sculptures never show a complete body), his sculpture explores themes of freedom, incarceration, and the struggles and suffering of history.
The massing mobs made life quite stressful as we tried to avoid people stepping on the dogs. So many of the visitors to this wonderful place just looked angry!
The only sustenance available in Pompeii was described in our guide as “a refreshment point managed by Autogrill, behind the Temple of Jupiter”, an uncomfortable juxtaposition of ancient and modern which made me chuckle. Autogrill, owned by the Benetton family, is a more familiar sight in motorway services.
Exhausted, Mark and I repaired to a trattoria opposite the gate on what turned out to be yet another unsuccessful quest for a pizza in Italy. The day before, its owner had hailed us as we dismounted our minibus following our trip to Vesuvius.
“We’re a family restaurant and cook traditional food!”
“We’ll come and see you tomorrow!” we promised.
Traditional, it seems, did not stretch to pizza. We enjoyed an overpriced seafood dinner and a bottle of local wine. It was another meal whose finesse didn’t quite match up its price tag, although wine at lunchtime made me feel a little reckless.
As we walked back, I could have cried. Everything hurt! I couldn’t wait to put my feet up. Sightseeing is the most exhausting activity known to humanity. A 12-mile hike to the summit of a mountain peak is less exhausting than ambling slowly around a tourist trap!
Mark and I agreed we were glad that we’d seen Pompeii, and equally glad that we didn’t now have to see it. As for Herculaneum (Ercolano), we couldn’t face it. Even though it is renowned for being much quieter, as well as better preserved than Pompeii, we decided to leave it for another time.
After visiting Pompeii in the late 1700s, German poet, Goethe, summed it up rather nicely,
“Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have bought posterity so much joy.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We did not visit the casts of the bodies on site, or in the Antiquarium (museum) near the Forum, whose exhibits trace the history of Pompeii from the Samnite era in 400 BC to its tragic destruction in 79 AD.
While I adored being immersed in their world, I couldn’t bring myself to look into the faces of those who lived, loved and laughed in Pompeii as they died in agony, smothered by ash and suffocated by toxic gases. I prefer to imagine their lives, rather than their harrowing demise, and celebrate a unique insight into their amazing civilisation, which passed down a great legacy to us. Which brings me neatly back to the matter of the space shuttle and the Roman horse’s bum…
Romans chariots were drawn by teams of horses harnessed in twos, side by side. The optimum wheel spacing to accommodate a pair of pony posteriors was four feet, eight-and-a-half inches.
When the Romans conquered Britain, they established the first long distance roads. Their chariot wheels wore out ruts, like the ones we saw in Pompeii, which were four feet, eight-and-a-half inches wide.
For fear of breaking their wagon wheels on the edges of the Roman ruts, Britons built their carts to fit the ruts.
When it came to building horse-drawn trams, powered trams, then trains, wagon builders used the tools and templates they already had, which advanced this odd gauge for wheel spacing into the railway age. (Engineering genius, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, favoured a 7ft ‘broad gauge’ which was far more stable for load bearing and faster speeds, but was never adopted because by then, the standard gauge was so entrenched in Britain’s infrastructure!)
The British exported trains, people and expertise to build railways across the empire, and in the USA. Naturally, they used their standard gauge; four feet, eight-and-a-half inches.
“But what’s that got to do with the space shuttle?” I hear you ask.
Thiokol manufactures the two enormous Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on the side of the shuttle in Utah. They transport them to the space shuttle launch site, the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, by train.
The SRBs provide over seventy percent of the thrust on launch. Designers would have made them bigger, except for one limiting factor. They had to pass through the mountains via a railroad tunnel with a girth just slightly wider than the track, whose dimensions equate to the size of two Roman horses’ backsides.
And that, my friends, is how the rear end of a Roman horse came to dictate not only the gauge of half of the world’s railways, but also the design of the space shuttle!
Pompeii – Information to Help Your Visit
- Pompeii Official Website
- Regulations – dogs over 10 kg may not visit the site.
- Downloadable guide to the excavations.
- Map of Pompeii Excavations
- FREE Tickets – these are available for visits on the first Sunday of every month. They must be downloaded online and the gates close once a mere 15,000 have been admitted.
- Self-Guided Walking Tour App – there are few interpretive signs on the site. ‘These two expert-designed self-guided walking tours to explore Pompei, Italy on foot at your own pace. You can also create your own self-guided walk to visit the city attractions which interest you the most.’
A Good Read
If you’re looking for a great read, the book Pompeii by Robert Harris is ‘a pulse rate speeding masterpiece’ according to the Sunday Times, with fascinating facts about aqueducts and Pompeii’s water system thrown in!
‘Through the eyes of four characters – a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt millionaire and an elderly scientist – Robert Harris brilliantly recreates a luxurious world on the brink of destruction.’
Now that I’ve visited Pompeii, I definitely need to read it again!