The City of Pompeii Sits On the Coast of Italy

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*** We spent Saturday looking at a certain part of the male anatomy. Big ones. Little ones. We had never seen so many.

Our guide at Pompeii told us that the masculine protuberances in front of us were seen as “a symbol of fertility, abundance and good luck,” said Carla, “So, as you can see, it is everywhere here. Even sticking out of the walls.”

There was one poking out over a doorway. Another was carved into the stone of the roadway itself, pointing the way to a brothel. Others were on the walls, some of mythic size. One man had his pride and joy on the scales. Others used them in more traditional ways…

*** Everyone should spend some time amid the ruins. It cultivates a sense of humility. “Look on my power,” the old stones of Pompeii seem to whisper, “and weep.”

The city of Pompeii sits on the coast of Italy, near Naples, about two hours’ train ride south of Rome. It also sits beneath a volcano – Vesuvius. It was this latter detail that brought it to an abrupt end…in 79 AD…and earned the city a notable place in history. In late August, Mt. Vesuvius began to rumble. The people looked up at the mountain and noticed a strange cloud over the peak – it was orange, and the shape of a typical pine tree from the area. Some Pompeiians took to boats to get away. Others went by land. Then, nothing happened. Pliny the Younger says his uncle returned to town, confident that it was nothing to worry about, and took a nap. Others, came back to town to get valuables and other properties. Still others just seemed to go about their business.

Rumbles were nothing new to them. An earthquake and tidal wave had hit the city 17 years before. The city had already been rebuilt. Worse case, people figured they were in for another shaking up.

Instead, the mountain blew up. The explosion took the top off Vesuvius and sent it flying. A wave of burning gas and hot ash hit Pompeii. People were knocked over, burned and smothered. Wood was carbonized. Ceilings collapsed under the weight. The whole city was covered up with volcanic dust, ash, and lava; Pompeii was extinguished.

“You see,” said Elizabeth, “you’re wrong. It’s not always better to do nothing. When the mountain began to smoke, these people would have been better off if they had panicked and ran.”

The people she meant were the people we were looking at. They were not people at all, but plaster casts of what had been people – sometimes with their bones and teeth still intact. In the 19th century, when serious excavations of Pompeii began, the archeologists on the case learned to pour plaster into the cavities in the rock left by flesh and wood. As the ash covered people, it was shaped by their bodies; then it hardened. The bodies disappeared, leaving a hole which could be filled with plaster. We were looking at a young woman, obviously pregnant, lying on her stomach, just as she was found. We can see the folds of her dress. Her arms are up over her head, trying to protect herself from the cloud of hot gas. Dozens of these ‘bodies’ have been found…some in touching positions, such as a small family, where the father was trying to protect his wife, while she tried to protect the children.

“The city was founded in the 6th century BC, we believe,” said Carla. “It was not a Roman city, but a Greek city. The whole Mediterranean rim is dotted with Greek cities…colonies of Greeks who were setting up trading stations or just trying to get away from the wars between the Greek city-states. This city didn’t become a fully Roman city until about the time of Caesar.”

The city was built of stone and carefully laid out, with two major East-West axes, and many streets running North-South. The streets are in stolid stone, with wagon ruts showing that they had been used for centuries before the place was obliterated. The streets have curbs, sidewalks, and stepping stones to get across from one to another without having to walk in the street itself.

From what we can tell, Pompeii was a more agreeable place to live than most modern cities. It was compact, easy to get around, and beautiful. Looking down one street, we see Vesuvius. Looking down another, there is the blue sea. The houses were substantial…and very pretty, with extensive wall paintings, frescoes, interior gardens, and mezzanines. They had running water…fountains and drains.

Most impressive is the town square. It is a place of statues and columns…a place for elections and town meetings…with a market area…and a place for getting together to discuss the issues of the day. And it is all beautifully built and symmetrically designed. It seemed to have so much that modern cities lack – harmony, permanence…stability.

“It is a wonderful thing that Pompeii was covered up,” Carla continued. “Because now we get to see a city exactly as it was 2000 years ago. “There were public baths, lunch counters with huge amphorae for wine, and whorehouses. The whorehouses are the most popular place for tourists now…because there are frescoes on the walls that show the various positions or services you could get. Remember, this was a port city, so many of the customers came from other cities. Often they didn’t speak the same language. So, they could just point at what they wanted.”

“When they began excavating in the 19th century,” Carla explained, “they were shocked by what they found. They put all those things into a special museum, where women weren’t allowed to go. But now, everyone is much more relaxed. The trend is to try to put everything back where it was…so you can see it as it was.”

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning Australia

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning.
Bill Bonner

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