Five Things That Surprised Me About Pompeii

by Gray Cargill on November 14, 2012

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Because of its tragic history, I have had a lifelong fascination with Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, which is about five miles away from Pompeii, buried the entire city under 13 to 20 feet of ash. Everyone who was still in the city at that time died. The city was lost for more than a thousand years and rediscovered in the 1700s. Today, it is (naturally) a UNESCO World Heritage site.

When I was planning my trip to Italy this past year, Pompeii was at the top of my list of places to see. Despite being familiar with the story of the city, I still had much to learn. My time there was limited and I wanted to maximize it, so it made the most sense for me to join a small group tour of the ruins.

Mosaic floor

A miraculously intact mosaic floor in Pompeii.

My group managed to get to Pompeii before it opened (this is ideal to avoid crowds). There, we met our guide, a woman whose name I cannot remember, which is a shame, because she was terrific—and funny. Every time she saw another tour group coming our way, she’d say “Quick, let’s go before the paparazzi arrive.” Not only did she keep us moving so we stayed ahead of the hordes of other tourists, but she was a wealth of information about Pompeii.

Given what I knew about Roman society back then, I was not surprised to see several temples to the gods in Pompeii, or an amphitheater where gladiators battled to the death, or a forum where citizens congregated. I wasn’t surprised to learn about how servants lived, or that some of the wealthy of Pompeii had quite nice homes (though I was amazed that some elements of those homes are still intact, such as the above mosaic). But there were things I didn’t know, didn’t suspect, that took me by surprise.

Here are 5 things that surprised me about Pompeii and its people:

They had indoor plumbing.

Okay, not everyone had indoor plumbing. And I’m not talking about flush toilets or anything. But Pompeii had an aquaduct that collected water and channeled it to various points around the city–public fountains, bathhouses, and even directly into the homes of some of the wealthier citizens of Pompeii—via pipes. That blew my mind. There were still homes in Vermont that didn’t have indoor plumbing in the 1900s. How did humanity take such a step backwards?


Public fountain

They were also very creative about collecting and storing water beyond what could be had from the aquaduct. As we toured a home of one of the wealthier citizens of Pompeii, we saw an atrium with an open skylight in the ceiling, and beneath it an impluvium–a square basin set into the floor that would collect rainwater for household use. Some homes even had underground cisterns (like water tanks). Brilliant.



They invented crosswalks and streetlights! Well. . .sort of.

The streets of Pompeii were arranged in a grid system. Wider streets that accommodated chariots and merchant carts had sidewalks that were elevated higher than the streets themselves. The streets had large stepping stones (their version of crosswalks) to make crossing the street easier. Why easier? Because the streets were often running with water and waste, and nobody wanted to step in it.

Stepping stones

Stepping stones

As someone who is night blind, what I thought was particularly genius was how they embedded small white stones in the streets to make it easier for people to see the streets at night. So not really what we would call streetlights, but it served the same purpose.

White stones in the street

White stones in the street helped show the way at night.

Visiting a brothel in Pompeii was kind of like going to a fast food restaurant.

I know, I know, that’s in incredibly poor taste. But follow along with me here. Just as we know today that we can find, for example, burgers and fries under the golden arches or tacos under a big pink bell, visitors to Pompeii knew where all the brothels were by following the phalluses. Images of phalluses, that is. They were either carved in the stone of the street, or made of stone carvings that protruded from a wall of a building. Inside the brothels were “menus” on the walls–paintings depicting the various “services” offered. You could just point to what you wanted. See what I mean?

Brothel at Pompeii

No, you cannot order this at Micky D's*.

*This was the least offensive photo I took at the brothel. Sorry if it still offends you.

Pompeiians loved their carbs.

They ate bread with every meal, and so there were numerous bakeries in the city. At the time of the volcanic eruption, life was going on as usual. When archaeologists excavated the city, they found 81 carbonized loaves of bread still in ovens.

Bread oven

Bread oven in Pompeii

How archaeologists managed to capture images of death.

We’ve probably all seen images of people who died that day in Pompeii, captured in the throes of death. I’ve always assumed they were encased in petrified ash and somehow excavated like that. That’s not the case. When archaeologists were digging at the site, they discovered cavities where bodies had been buried beneath many feet of ash. But the bodies had decayed, leaving just human-shaped voids in the hardened ash, imprinted with whatever position the people were in when they died. So the archaeologists started poking holes in the ash and when they found a cavity, they poured a liquid plaster into the cavity. This is how they captured the images of the dead, so that today we can see how people (and animals) died in Pompeii.

Plaster mold of boy in Pompeii

This person died while sitting against a wall.

Christy December 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm

I would love to do a tour of Pompeii. I was SO close and decided to head back to Sicily instead of seeing Pompeii. Putting white stones in the street to see at night is genius.

Gray December 10, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I thought so, too, Christy! Anyway, yeah, if you ever get another chance, I highly recommend a visit.

Red Hunt November 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Cool, I had no idea that Pompeii was this interesting…the white stones and stepping stones on the roads are so simple, but smart. Such a different perspective than the usual Pompeii posts I’ve read!

Gray November 15, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Thanks, Red! They were really brilliant in many ways…though if they’d been truly brilliant, they’d have left town as soon as Mt. Vesuvius started grumbling.

Rika | Cubicle Throwdown November 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I was so excited to see this post! I am a Pompeii nerd as well, I think it’s fascinating. I am so jealous that you got to go there, and I didn’t know three out of those 5 things so thank you for that!

Gray November 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Yay, another Pompeii nerd! So glad you enjoyed it. I hope you get to go soon!

Brian T. November 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

How fascinating! I suppose I’m one of the few who didn’t learn about Pompeii in school. Now my curiosity has been ignited. So pretty much the ash preserved everything just as it was when the volcano “destroyed” the city. That’s incredible.

Gray November 14, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Well, I wouldn’t say it preserved everything the way it was. A lot was destroyed. And even now, time is not being kind to the ruins. There are areas that are shored up or fenced off that don’t look all that safe. Which I guess is why I was so surprised to still see paintings (murals) on walls in houses.

Jason November 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Great story! There’s a traveling exhibition in Denver right now, which I recently saw. Fantastic. it brought me back to my high school days when I actually traveled to Pompeii, just as your story here did.

Gray November 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm

You got to travel to Pompeii when you were in high school? Oh man, I bet that was a trip!

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