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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

The City That Rose from Ash
by Bob Brooke


It was early morning. The gates to the dead city hadn’t opened yet. Silence filled the streets once teeming with people, shopping, conversing, going about their business. What remains of the buildings speaks volumes about life here in 79 C.E., the day when life as the Roman residents of Pompeii knew it would end.

What strikes the visitor more than anything else is the horrific casts of the people, caught in the moment of death, surprise on many of their faces. It’s something a person doesn’t easily forget. So much rests on the preserved agony in their faces that visitors forget about what life was like here.

But somehow what remains of Roman Pompeii is magical. The tons and tons of ash softly and swiftly buried the residents of Pompeii, their culture, their lives. And in doing so preserved it for generations. Buried deep under the ash were elegant homes with colonnades and floors of earth colored mosaics.

Shops opened for business early that morning. Shopkeepers filled the amphora with wine and prepared to bake bread for the day’s lunch. Later, the ash encased the loaves, turning them into hard remnants of themselves.

The inhabitants of Pompeii had long been used to minor earthquakes, but on February 5, 62 CE a severe earthquake did considerable damage around the bay, especially in Pompeii. Volcanologists believe the earthquake would have registered between 5 and 6 on the Richter scale.

Mt. Vesuvius Erupts
It was on the afternoon of August 24, 79 CE, that people living around the long-dormant Mount Vesuvius watched in awe as flames shot suddenly from the 4,000-foot volcano, followed by a huge black cloud. A witness later wrote that sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.

Volcanologists estimate that the eruptive column expelled from the cone rose as high as 20 miles. Soon a rain of soft pumice, or lapilli, and ash began falling over the countryside. That evening, broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points on the mountain, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.

Many people fled as soon as they saw the eruption. But the lapilli gathered deadly force, the weight collapsing roofs and crushing stragglers as they sought protection beneath staircases and under beds. Others choked to death on thickening ash and noxious clouds of sulfurous gas. Doomed by its proximity to Vesuvius, the ash entombed Pompeii within a day.

The eruption lasted for two days. The first phase rained pumice for 18 hours, allowing most inhabitants to escape. So far, only about 1,150 bodies have so far been found on site. Most escapees probably managed to salvage some of their most valuable belongings—jewelry, silverware, coins.

At some time during the night or early the next day, pyroclastic flows, consisting of high speed, dense, and very hot ash clouds, began near the volcano. Knocking down wholly or partly all structures in their path, the flows incinerated or suffocated the remaining population and altered the landscape. By evening of the second day, the eruption had ceased, leaving only haze in the atmosphere which bloated out the sun.

Most people died from the intense heat, not from suffocation as archaeologists previously believed. Exposure to at least 480 °Fat a distance of 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within. Up to 12 different layers of tephra, up to19.7 feet deep covered the people and buildings of Pompeii.

Soon after the eruption ceased, survivors and possibly thieves came to salvage valuables, including the marble statues from the forum and other precious materials from buildings. Archaeologists discovered they had made holes through walls. The tops of larger buildings rose above the ash, making it obvious where to dig or salvage building material. The robbers left traces such as a wall graffito saying "house dug." Further eruptions covered the city more deeply.

Pompeii remained largely undisturbed, lost to history, through the rise of Byzantium, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

Antiquities Discovered
A French prince digging in the vicinity of his villa on Mount Vesuvius had discovered the antiquities nearly 30 years earlier, but he never conducted a systematic excavation. So he dispatched teams of laborers and engineers equipped with tools and blasting powder to the site of the original dig to hunt for more treasures at the site. For months, they tunneled through 60 feet of rock-hard lava, unearthing painted columns, sculptures of Roman figures draped in togas, the bronze torso of a horse—and a flight of stairs. Not far from the staircase they came to an inscription, “Theatrum Herculanense.” They had uncovered a Roman-era town, Herculaneum.

Digging began in Pompeii 10 years later. Workers burrowed far more easily through the softer deposits of pumice and ash, unearthing streets, villas, frescoes, mosaics and the remains of the dead. The skeleton of a man lay outstretched on the floor with gold and silver coins that had rolled out of his bony hands still seeking, it seemed, to clutch them fast.

In the 1860s a pioneering Italian archaeologist at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, poured liquid plaster into the cavities in the solidified ash created by the decomposing flesh, creating perfect casts of Pompeii’s victims at the moment of their deaths—down to the folds in their togas, the straps of their sandals, their agonized facial expressions. These morbid tableaux thrilled early visitors on the Grand Tour.

Largely preserved under the ash, the excavated remains of Pompeii offered a unique snapshot of Roman life, frozen at the moment it was buried, and an extraordinarily detailed insight into the everyday life of its inhabitants. However, much of the evidence was lost in the early excavations.

Pompeii was a wealthy town, with many fine public buildings and luxurious lavishly decorated private houses, with fine furnishings and works of art. The volcanic ash entombed organic remains, including wooden objects and human bodies. Over time, they decayed, leaving voids which archaeologists used as molds to make plaster casts of unique—and often gruesome— figures in their final moments of their lives. The numerous graffiti carved on the walls and inside rooms provide a wealth of examples of the largely lost Vulgar Latin spoken colloquially at the time, contrasting with the formal language of the classical writers.

The grandeur of Pompeii’s public buildings remains, even in ruin. The Forum, the preserved administrative and commercial center of the city, had entrances to the Basilica and Macellum, the Temple of Jupiter.

The city became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way. The Romans built many public buildings or refurbished and improved others. New ones included the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, built in 70 BCE, the Forum Baths, and the Odeon. They embellished the Forum with the colonnade of Popidius before 80 BCE. These buildings raised the status of Pompeii as a cultural center in the region, while at the same time outshining its neighbors in the number of places for entertainment.

One of the most glorious of Pompeii’s villas is the House of the Golden Cupids, a wealthy man’s residence, its interior embellished with frescoes and mosaics, built around a garden faithfully reproduced on the basis of period paintings. And there were many others as Pompeii became a seaside resort for the rich.

Pompeiian Artifacts
Objects buried beneath Pompeii were well-preserved for almost 2,000 years as the lack of air and moisture allowed little to no deterioration. However, once exposed, Pompeii has been subject to both natural and man-made forces, which have rapidly increased deterioration.

Before its disastrous end, Pompeii was a thriving city known for its lavish style. Houses were decorated beautifully, as were the people, blending art into all aspects of their life. After being buried in ash and debris, the recovered artifacts of the city remained, giving archaeologists a better understanding of the people thousands of years after their time.

The residents of Pompeii saw jewelry as a status item—the more a people had, the higher their status. Jewelry was expensive, so only the wealthy were able to afford it Jewelry artefacts have been a common discovery within Pompeii’s ruins. Archaeologists have discovered skeletons with bracelets still attached or even gripping pieces of jewelry in desperation. The jewelry worn was typically gold, with a few gemstones and pearls depending on the piece.

Frescoes, the most common painting style at the time, are the main form of artwork found within Pompeii. Artists painted frescos directly onto the plaster walls using water-based pigments. Many of these works have given archaeologists a greater understanding of the people of Pompeii, particularly showing the comfortability they had concerning their sexual desires. Erotic frescoes adorned the walls of brothels, promoting the services and positions available. In private homes, they depicted sensual occurrences between the gods. Many have survived in varying degrees of completeness.

The fresco, on the wall of a 12 -by-16-foot room containing an altar, a garden, and a small pool, depicts an unusual design of different beasts, along with a man with the head of a dog, thought to be inspired by the Egyptian god Anubis.

Food remnants have been one of the most unique finds in Pompeii. They have helped tell archaeologists what types of food Pompeiians ate. One of the most fascinating discoveries was a giraffe bone, which illustrated how the wealthy people of Pompeii sought after the most exotic food for their dinners made possible by imports from far-flung areas. Another enthralling find was the discovery of several carbonized loaves of bread preserved, preserved in charcoal, looking as if they just came out of the oven. Along with these, whole eggs, fruit, nuts and fish bones have also been found, indicating the varied diet the people of Pompeii had. What’s been highly notable and unexpected is just how healthy this diet was for people of that time, which was made possible by their convenient location to the ocean and the fertile volcanic earth.

WATCH A VIDEO:  Top 10 Treasures of Pompeii

Other service buildings that have been undercovered include the Macellum, or meat market, the Pistrinum, or grain mill, the cauponae, or cafes with a seedy reputation as hangouts for thieves and prostitutes, and the Thermopolium, a fast-food place that served hot and cold dishes and beverages. .

Archaeologists uncovered a typical Pompeiian thermopolium containing eight dolia, or terracotta containers, in December 2020. In addition to brightly colored frescoes, archaeologists revealed some of the 2,000-year-old foods available in some of the deep terra cotta jars. In the drink shop, they found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, wine flasks, amphora, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups. One fresco depicts a dog with a collar on a leash, possibly a reminder for customers to leash their pets.

Only recently have archaeologists uncovered a well-preserved four-wheel ceremonial chariot at a villa north of Pompeii in Civita Giuliana, where a stable had previously been discovered in 2018. The carriage is made of bronze with black and red wooden panels, with stories engraved onto metal medallions at the back.

The artifacts uncovered in Pompeii continue to tell stories about the lives of the people who lived, worked, and played there over 2,000 years ago

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