Pompeii and ceremony – the talking walls of Ancient Rome (Pompeii, Italy)

By Hannah Silverman

In my neighbourhood the streets are lined with houses, churches and parklands. Pretty unremarkable, I suppose. By day the high streets compete for commercial attention in fashion stores, cocktail lounges and restaurants while squares are populated with workers, families, lovers, gym junkies and socialites. At night, dirty take-away pit stops are ready to serve the intoxicated masses and bars promise dalliances with the midnight underworld. This is life in London.

When I visited Italy, I walked through a neighbourhood where similar institutions were founded on motives equally as unremarkable. But instead of the pristine franchises I have become accustomed, these neighbourhood landmarks presented as the charred architectural skeletons of a 2000 plus-year-old history. This was life in Pompeii, and even in its hauntingly decimated state, it felt surprisingly familiar.

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The derelict community ruins of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) bear all the hallmarks of a neighbourhood like yours or mine, but today are offered as an archaeological tourist attraction; a museum for the curious traveller and a playground for the avid historian. I had no idea so much would be so well preserved and so, well, recognisable. As the saying goes, ‘if these walls could talk’… well, to this traveller, they practically did.

This wall in Herculaneum is saying something like ‘I need some Dulux and a tradie’.

So what actually happened and why should you care? Imagine living in an age before BBC app alerts could declare a state of natural disaster. Pompeians were living their lives as usual in 79AD and all of sudden “a cloud formed… huge flames and great tongues of fire rose from many points on Mount Vesuvius”. In other words, the volcano erupted. For more than 16,000 people, it was too late to flea as rocks, mud and ash showered the once thriving metropolis, blanketing Pompeii and its surrounds as though it never existed. That is, until excavations began in 1748 revealing the lost city. Archeologists even discovered casts of people and animals while art, architecture and town planning told the narratives libraries at the time couldn’t.

Thanks to this discovery, and the work thereafter, this is how we know just how similar ancient Pompeii and our lives today really are. Few civilisations have been as well preserved, instead evolving with social progression and concealing tangible evidence of the past. Mostly we build, then rebuild, until often the renovations bear small resemblances to the historic structures that once stood and served. Consequently we’re left with assumptions that yesteryear was markedly different from societies that we  understand today.

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I’m surprised and somewhat ashamed to admit I knew very little about the story of Pompeii until I visited the brilliant ‘Life and Death in Pompeii’ exhibition at the British Museum in 2013. Suffice to say, the few hours I spent there accelerated Pompeii to the top of my travelling bucket list. I had to explore and see this for myself and it therefore set my Italian agenda. To this day it remains one of my most eye opening excursions.

When I visited I was staying in Pompeii itself, although travellers can easily commute if based in nearby Naples or in major towns along the Amalfi Coast. To give you an idea, you can expect to stand on a train for about an hour from either Naples or Sorrento. For me, the benefit of staying closer meant the walk to Pompeii gave me a glimpse at the outskirts and heightened the anticipation. Overgrown shrubbery frame the broken remnants of Pompeii while tourist cafes and souvenir shops beckon with their overpriced purchases. The vibe is electric knowing what historically significant a site awaits beyond the entrance gate.

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While entry to Pompeii is reasonable, to tour it as a solo traveller it’s going to require you to hand over a small fortune to the many tour guides who linger outside. But, they are Italian, and they do like to make friends – and so do I. I was fortunate that one such guide invited me to join one of his pre-booked visits and wander Pompeii as he detailed stories of the disaster. Once the tour was over I spent the next two or so hours wandering around myself. Pompeii is huge, and it’s impossible to squeeze this into half a day. If you visit, do give yourself enough time to explore.

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As I wondered around, one of my favourite finds was the take-away restaurant, which I was told cooked for its diners and facilitated quick take home meals for those in a hurry. If you thought McDonalds was a modern day innovation, think again, the Pompeians beat them to the ‘fast food’ genre more than 2000 years ago, although I’m pretty sure back then you couldn’t get fries with that.

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The houses naturally vary between mansion status and community housing and shop fronts fringe the high streets the way they do today. It’s amazing to walk among ruins that require little imagination to mentally reconstruct.

There are bakeries and pizzerias…

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Theatres…

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Sporting grounds…

Gyms and day spas…

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Gardens…

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Meeting areas….

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Churches…

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And then there are the brothels…

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Herculaneum is not too far from Pompeii and is easily accessible by the same Naples to Sorrento train line that services both Ercolano Scavi (for Herculaneum) and Pompeii (obviously for Pompeii). By absolute coincidence I arrived a day where free entry was offered to EU citizens. As a site it’s much smaller than Pompeii but I found the art work had been much better preserved and due to its smaller size is somewhat easier to comprehensively navigate. It’s most definitely worth a trip to ensure you are fully immersed in this unique chapter of history.

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I think there is often a tendency to forget that the past isn’t that dissimilar from the present. Sure, values and cultural attitudes change and technology improves to revolutionise our lifestyles from a practical point of view, but the old “we’re only human” adage means we’re still vulnerable to emotion and base needs. I’m not going to get all Dr Phil on you, but when you think about it, people don’t change from generation to generation. Attitudes change around us, legislation is reformed and technology advances, that’s all. As a result, our communities continue to fundamentally serve very similar purposes.

You might be a baby boomer or a millennial, or an ancient Pompeian, but we all need the same things and these same needs have always been provided for us in one way or another. A Pompeian’s wood oven is your Dominos. A Pompeian’s bath is your Fitness First. A Pompeian’s amphitheatre is your Royal Albert Hall, Wembly, O2 or Rod Laver.

In a nutshell, that’s why I love history and why I simply adored Pompeii.

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