One of the most dramatic stories told by archaeological exploration comes from the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum -- two of the Roman cities destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. These cities were situated overlooking the Bay of Naples in the rich district of Roman Campania. Pompeii was an older regional agricultural center; Herculaneum was the younger, predominantly Roman aristocratic city. Directly between them stood Mt. Vesuvius, an ancient and at times lively volcano. Increasingly during the late Republican period (second - first centuries BCE), the Neapolitan coast became the haven for the wealthiest of Rome's population to retreat from the crowds and heat of the capital. Herculaneum could boast the likes of Calpurnius Piso, Julius Caesar's father-in-law and a patron of the arts and philosphy.
Mt. Vesuvius was no recumbant giant; it rumbled and belched with some frequency in antiquity. In 62 CE there was a severe earthquake that forced significant rebuilding in Pompeii. Despite the threatenings, however, the population grew and the cities expanded. But then in 79 CE the rumblings continued for days, until the full eruptions began and the entire coastal region was covered and these two cities -- along with many of their inhabitants -- buried. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger (who figures prominently in trials of Christians in the early second century) tells the story of how he accompanied his uncle, Pliny the Elder, on an attemplted rescue mission by sea to help evacuate residents. The elder Pliny died when his boat got too close to the shore and he was overwhelmed by fumes and heat. Recent archaeological excavations along the waterfront in Herculaneum have revealed the contorted remains of many people who made it out of the city but never got off the shore.
The two cities experience the catastrophe in different ways, and this contributes to the archaeological record. Pompeii, lying to the east and south of the mountain, was buried under approximately 40 feet of fine ash. Deadly at the time, this layer of ash was relatively easy to excavate seventeen centuries later when the city was rediscovered. Herculaneum, on the other hand, lying to the west of Vesuvius, experience its full fury with a hot thermal blast, poisonous gasses, and a flow of molten volcanic mud that, when cooled, buried the remains under an 80 foot deep bed with the density of concrete. For this reason Herculaneum has been much more difficult to excavate, and some areas of the city have remained inaccessible due to pockets of trapped gas. Only recently has been possible to resume some of these excavations. The house of Calpurnius Piso, now known as the Villa of the Papyri, yielded a complete ancient library, and scientists and scholars are still working on deciphering and reading the badly scorched scrolls at the institute in Naples. The house has never been fully excavated and still lies buring beneath the hardened mud, although new efforts are now being made. Based on earlier work, however, a plan of the house was known and used in the building of the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, where it's setting overlooking the ocean resembles that of the ancient site in Herculaneum.
Of the two cities, Pompeii is more fully known through extensive excavations. It contains a traditional Roman forum, markets, theater and odeon (or music hall), baths, and traditional temples. Pompeii has also yielded more areas of domestic and commercial life than almost any other Roman site, and so is very important for our understanding of housing, private artistic decoration and display, and the social make-up and organization of the Roman family. Rather than a smaller, nuclear family (centerd on parents and children), the Romans had a extended familial networks that also included the household slaves, former slaves who remained attached to the household, business clients, work associates, and a large array of other dependents, depending on the size and wealth of the family. Pompeii is also know for the size and oppulence of a number of its private houses, including the House of the Vettii, the House of the Fawn, House of Menander, and the Villa of the Mysteries. The last, a huge villa located just on the outskirts of Pompeii on the road to Herculaneum, is so called because one private drawing room near the bedroom of the mistress of the house was lavishly decorated with scenes representing elements of Dionysiac mythology and practice. [Note: there are scenes of this room in the program.] In addition, Pompeii played host to a prominent temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis; it was located just behind the theater on the major street now called the Via dell'abondanza.
At the other end of the same street, near the east end of town lies the amphitheater of Pompeii, site of games and mass entertainment spectacles. Along the way down these streets, still preserved as on that day in 79 CE, are the shops, tavernas, smaller houses, and brothels. As with few other archaeological sites of Graeco-Roman antiquity, one finds the marks of day-to-day life in the Roman world and the characteristic elements of Roman culture without the overlay of later habitation.