Lost cities #4: Pompeii was preserved by disaster. Now it risks ruin all over again

Of all the lost cities in the world, ancient Pompeii is the most ‘found’. The volcanic eruption that destroyed the Roman city also froze it in time – but now, 2,000 years later, it is alive with people who threaten its existence all over again

Perched high in the gods of the great theatre, you get a good view of the waves of tourists. They enter from left and right, then flow on towards the forum, or the baths, or the lupanar (the brothel) where the explicit, 2,000-year-old wall decorations are such a draw that visitors get pushed in one entrance and out the other with barely enough time to focus the camera lens.

Watching this apparently endless performance, and overhearing excitable talk of Elton John and David Gilmour having played gigs in the giant amphitheatre just a few nights before, it seems reasonable to conclude that the vast ruin of ancient Roman Pompeii must, of all the lost cities in the world, represent the one most found.

How it was lost is legendary. The violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days in the year AD79 has inspired numerous novels, paintings, poems and dramas on stage and screen, not least an especially firey episode of Doctor Who. Goethe got it right when he wrote, after visiting Pompeii in the spring of 1787: “There have been many disasters in this world, but few have given so much delight to posterity.”

The volcano’s eruption – an initial cause of wonder that turned quickly into terror and tragedy – is recorded in a single surviving eyewitness account by Pliny the Younger. (His uncle, the Roman naval commander and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, did not live to tell the tale.)

Tourists in Pompeii, Italy
Tourists swarm the ancient site of Pompeii. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The Plinys, shortly after lunch one sunny afternoon in Misenum (an imperial naval base west of Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples), were distracted from their studies by the sight of an immense cloud, rising in the shape of an “umbrella pine”: branches spreading from a tall, thick trunk. The cloud of pumice and ash blasted some 20 miles into the sky, then began to collapse, pouring down on surrounding fields and towns.

As roofs buckled and broke beneath the mounting debris, most people made a run for it. Some strapped pillows to their heads as protection from the showers of rock; many left it too late. Cascades of scorching ash and toxic gases known as pyroclastic surges, which probably reached 300C, brought instant death to the residents of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, along with numerous smaller settlements in between.

The sixth and largest surge reached Misenum, about 15 miles away from the volcano, from where the 17-year-old Pliny and his mother were forced to flee with a “frantic mob”. Chased by a dense cloud “flooding over the earth like a torrent”, they witnessed the shoreline recede in advance of a tsunami before being shrouded in darkness; the deep gloom only intensified the shouts, shrieks and cries of desperate men, women and children.

Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder, driven by his curiosity as a naturalist and his duty as an admiral, sailed south to the stricken town of Stabiae. Here he got a closer look at “all the phenomena of that dreadful scene”, and eventually acknowledged the urgency of a rescue mission – only to be choked by fumes on the beach. When his body was discovered three days later it looked, according to his nephew, “more like that of a man asleep than one who had died”.

Karl Briullov, Last Days of Pompeii, 1830-1833. Oil on canvas. 456.5 x 651 cm.
Residents attempt to escape the eruption in the Last Days of Pompeii by Karl Briullov. Illustration: The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Pliny’s description of his uncle could be a metaphor for how Pompeii itself has been imagined, ever since 18th-century Europe became in thrall to the architectural and artistic antiquities that were being discovered in the formal excavations of the site, which began in 1748.

Encapsulating what the Cambridge classics professor and excavations expert Andrew Wallace-Hadrill calls a “paradox of the survival of the past”, Pompeii was preserved in the process of being destroyed. The cataclysmic nature of its sudden loss – as opposed to abandonment, or transformation over time, or devastation by enemy force – served not only to stop the remaining inhabitants literally in their tracks, but to conserve traces of their lives, and very bodies, as if frozen in time.

Between the rows of terracotta pots and assorted amphorae that are packed into the forum’s granary in the manner of an ancient lost property office, a figure crouches in palpable despair, its hands raised in a bid to cover its face. Although arranged much like the empty vessels on either side, this ghoulish form embodies human remains discovered by Amedeo Maiuri, Pompeii’s chief archaeologist from 1924 to 1961.

Following a technique pioneered by the director of excavations in the 1860s, Giuseppe Fiorelli, Maiuri’s team poured plaster into the void left by the body in the hardened volcanic ash. The resulting cast is commonly known as the “muleteer”, or mule man, after the skeleton of a mule or donkey found nearby. For Maiuri, he was “like a beggar on the church steps … A tragic figure from one of Dante’s circles of hell.”

Tourists look at a body cast during their visit the archeological site of Pompeii
‘A tragic figure from one of Dante’s circles of hell’: a body cast at Pompeii. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/AFP/Getty Images

Today, visitors show their sympathy for this pitiful, hunched Pompeian by throwing loose change into a fountain bowl that has been placed invitingly at his side.

The urge to share our humanity with the mule man signals the enduring immediacy and emotive power of the hundred or so plaster casts made since the 19th century: the lost city’s living dead. It doesn’t matter that we might be looking at a reproduction. As we peer through railings and dusty cabinets at the slightly twisted body of a tiny toddler or the contorted form of a dog, still struggling to break free from its collar and chain as it was subsumed by the lethal surge, history seems to play out in front of our eyes.

Thus Pompeii has the power to “turn people on to the Romans”, says the renowned classicist Mary Beard. Her bestselling book and television documentaries (her second on Pompeii, New Secrets Revealed, was screened earlier this year) demonstrate how scholarly research and scientific analysis such as CT scanning are busting stereotypes and enriching understanding of daily life in the town – which was less a city, as Beard points out, and more a Saffron Walden of the Roman world. It was a prosperous yet provincial colony of the empire, with a population of somewhere between 10,000-20,000, of which around 1,150 bodies have been found.

For the archaeologist Sophie Hay, it is not simply the state of preservation that makes Pompeii so special, but the new light she and fellow researchers are helping to shed on the everyday experiences of non-elite Romans – soldiers, street traders, slaves – and even those who came before the Romans. In Pompeii, the ordinary is extraordinary: old loaves of bread burned to a crust; disturbingly familiar-looking surgical tools.

Plastic sheets cover the remains of a house in Pompeii.
Plastic sheets cover the remains of a house in Pompeii. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Walking in the grooves made by Pompeians and their carts in the streets, we find the ancients speaking to each other loudly and clearly, from the mosaic doormat spelling out Cave canem (Beware of the dog) to the graffiti they scratched on the walls: “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera”; “I screwed the barmaid”; “Epaphra, you are bald!”

A proverb inscribed on a wall of the basilica – “A small problem gets larger if you ignore it” – looks prophetic with the volcano looming in the background. Seismic activity in the area (a common occurrence, according to Pliny) was a warning to the locals that Vesuvius might blow, but one they apparently did not heed. Pompeii was under large-scale reconstruction as a result of an earthquake in AD63 when it was ruined again 17 years later.

The volcano had erupted before, and has done so since, most recently in 1944. “It was the most majestic and terrible sight I have ever seen, or ever expect to see,” recalled the travel writer Norman Lewis in his account of being a young intelligence officer stationed in Naples following its liberation from Nazi forces. (The allies dropped more than 150 bombs on Pompeii in 1943, causing considerable damage.)

And Vesuvius remains one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, with millions of people living on or near its slopes, and millions more visiting the archaeological sites every year, strangely drawn by the idea that – as the 18th-century diarist Hester Lynch Piozzi put it – “We, who today are spectators, may become spectacles to travellers of a succeeding century.”

A sign, which reads: “No Entry” The European Union launched a multi-million euro restoration of the crumbling world heritage site on Wednesday, and said it would seek to protect it from the influence of local mafia.
The EU warned last year that it would withdraw funding from the preservation project in Pompeii. Photograph: Ciro Luca/Reuters

The more urgent threat to Pompeii is, however, the wear and tear caused by tourists and the exposure to more everyday elements than the volcano. Structural collapses caused by heavy rains in recent years have prompted concern about Italy’s capability to conserve this Unesco World Heritage Site, which was listed in 1997 and since threatened with inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Action has accelerated since the EU warned last year that it would withdraw funding from the Great Pompeii Project, a programme of conservation, maintenance and restoration. The site’s superintendent, Massimo Osanna, is at pains to emphasise the enthusiasm that is now being invested alongside the euros, with architects, archaeologists and conservators hard at work on site. None the less, the city said to have been given a second life is staring a second death in the face.

In Beard’s view, it is better to hold back on digging for new answers: “One-third of the town is underground, and that is where it should stay, safe and sound, for the future,” she says. “Meanwhile we can look after the other two-thirds as best we can, delaying its collapse as far as is reasonable.”

Despite the “thrill of excavation”, Hay agrees: “Conservation of buildings has to take precedence over further excavation. The Pompeian scholar Paul Zanker calls for archaeologists to return to previously excavated parts of the city with new research questions in mind, and I think this is the best advice: to reassess what we can learn from what is already visible, rather than excavate untouched parts of the city and add to the issue of conservation.”

Besides, the excavations have thrown up more questions than they have probably answered. Looking down on the great theatre, extensively rebuilt and restored over the past century, it’s hard not to wonder if Pompeii has always survived more in our imaginations than in the ground: a city being re-lost in the process of being found.

Do you know of other lost cities throughout history? Share stories in the comments below and follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion

Emily Mann

The GuardianTramp

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