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The site of Pompeii, petrified memorial to Vesuvius's eruption on August 24, AD 79, is the largest, most accessible, and probably most famous excavation anywhere. A busy commercial center with a population of 12,000–15,000, ancient Pompeii covered about 160 acres on the seaward end of the fertile Sarno Plain. Today it's choked with both the dust of 25 centuries and more than 2 million visitors every year. Only by escaping the hordes and lingering along its silent streets can you truly fall under the site's spell. Come in the late afternoon, when it's nearly deserted, and you'll understand that the true pleasure of Pompeii is not in the seeing but in the feeling.
As you enter the ruins at Porta Marina, the first buildings to the left after you've gone through the ticket turnstiles are the Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths), built right up against the city walls. These have eyebrow-raising frescoes in the apodyterium (changing room) that strongly suggest more than just bathing and massaging went on here. On the walls are scenes of erotic games clients could "play" in the second-floor Lupanare (brothel).
Continue up the hill to the Foro (Forum), which served as Pompeii's cultural, political, commercial, and religious hub. You can still see some of the two stories of colonnades that used to line two sides of the square. Like the ancient Greek agora in Athens, the Forum was a busy shopping area, complete with public officials to apply proper standards of weights and measures. Fronted by an elegant portico on the eastern side of the forum is the Macellum, a covered meat and fish market dating to Augustan times. It was also in the Forum that elections were held, politicians let rhetoric fly, official announcements were made, and worshippers crowded the Tempio di Giove (Temple of Jupiter), at the northern end of the forum. The nearby Terme del Foro (Forum Baths) offered a relaxing respite. It had underground furnaces, the heat from which circulated beneath the floor, rose through flues in the walls, and escaped through chimneys: water temperature could be set for cold, lukewarm, or hot. On the southwestern corner is the Basilica, the city's law court and the economic center. These oblong halls were the model for early Christian churches, which had a nave (central aisle) and two side aisles separated by rows of columns.
Several homes were captured in various states by the eruption of Vesuvius, each representing a different slice of Pompeiian life. The Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet) is a typical middle-class residence. On the floor is a mosaic of a chained dog and the inscription cave canem ("Beware of the dog"). The House of the Vettii (closed at the time of writing) is the best example of a wealthy merchant's home. Its vivid murals—except for those in the two wings off the atrium—were all painted after the earthquake of AD 62. Once inside, cast an admiring glance at the delicate frieze around the wall of the triclinium (on the right of the peristyle garden as you enter from the atrium), depicting cupids engaged in various activities, such as selling oils and perfumes or performing in chariot races.
There's no more magnificently memorable evidence of Pompeii's devotion to the pleasures of the flesh than the frescoes on view at the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries), a palatial abode built at the far northwestern fringe of Pompeii. Unearthed in 1909 this villa had many rooms, all adorned with frescoes—the finest of which are in the triclinium. Painted in the most glowing Pompeiian red, the panels relate the saga of a young bride and her initiation into the mysteries of the cult of Dionysus, who was a god imported to Italy from Greece and then given the Latin name of Bacchus.
Two blocks beyond the Stabian Baths (entrance on Via dell'Abbondanza, closed for restoration at time of writing) you'll notice on the left the current digs at the Casa dei Casti Amanti (House of the Chaste Lovers). A team of plasterers and painters were at work here when Vesuvius erupted, redecorating one of the rooms and patching up cracks caused by earth tremors a matter of days before. More paintings and mosaics were executed at Casa del Menandro (House of Menander), a patrician's villa named for a fresco of the Greek playwright.
Pompeii's other major edifice is the Anfiteatro (Amphitheater), once the ultimate entertainment venue for locals. It provided a range of experiences, though these essentially involved gladiators rather than wild animals. Built in about 70 BC, the oval structure was divided into three seating areas. There were two main entrances—at the north and south ends—and a narrow passage on the west called the Porta Libitinensis, through which the dead were most probably dragged out. During a show in AD 59 the supporters of rival gladiators became involved in a cruel brawl causing the closing of the amphitheater for years.
To get the most out of Pompeii, rent an audio guide (€6.50 for one, €10 for two; you'll need to leave an ID card) and opt for one of the three itineraries (2 hours, 4 hours, or 6 hours). If hiring a guide, make sure the guide is registered for an English tour and standing inside the gate; agree beforehand on the length of the tour and the price; and prepare yourself for soundbites of English mixed with dollops of hearsay. You can prebook an excellent guide at www.vesuviusvspompeii.com or www.contexttravel.com.
- Address: Pompeii | Map It
- Phone: 081/8575347
- Cost: €11, tickets are valid for one full day
- Hours: Apr.–Oct., daily 8:30–7:30 (last admission at 6), and Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–5 (last admission at 3:30)
- Website: www.pompeiisites.org
- Metro Pompei-Villa dei Misteri.
- Location: Pompeii
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