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The lessons of Pompeii

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POMPEII, Italy — Is the message of this city that some things seemingly last forever? That long after you are gone, something telling may be left behind?

Or is it that life can turn on you in a hurry? That you should appreciate each day to its fullest?

Either way, there are powerful lessons here. And as you walk through the ruins of this once grand Roman city, those might be the things you think about. At the very least, you will appreciate the dramatic story of the lost-and-found Pompeii.

Located on the Bay of Naples, the city had been established in the sixth century B.C. by peoples of central Italy. It came under the rule of the Roman Empire in 80 B.C. and became a prosperous commercial center for goods that arrived by sea and were sent on to Rome on the Appian Way.

But for the citizens of Pompeii, the world ended on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, when nearby Vesuvius blew up. The volcanic eruption sent tons of ash and debris raining down onto the town, killing and covering those who could not escape — some 2,000 or so by best estimate — with a deposit more than 30 feet thick.

The eruption of Vesuvius — considered long-dormant and sacred to the memory of the god Hercules — was documented by Pliny the Younger, living in the port city of Misenum on the other side of the bay. In letters to the Roman historian Tacitus, he told of the "broad sheets of fire and leaping flame" and the ensuing panic they created. He talked of the piles of ash and the cries of suffering people. "We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the darkness of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if a lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of the women, the wailing of the infants and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voice." And this was in Misenum, not the closer Pompeii.

Pliny also told of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was in charge of the naval fleet stationed at Misenum, and attempted the rescue of the wife of a friend who lived at the foot of the mountain. He was able to land and make his way ashore, but then, wrote his nephew, "he stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe. ... When daylight returned on the 26th, his body was found intact and uninjured, still clothed and looking more like sleep than death." Some historians speculate that it might have been the exertion rather than the fumes that killed old Pliny, as his slaves seem to have survived, but apparently they were also all wearing pillows on their heads to protect him from falling debris, which creates an interesting picture of what was going on.

Pompeii was buried in ash. Nearby Herculaneum was buried in mud. Apparently, after the eruption, a few of the survivors came back to dig in the ash and try to recover their possessions, but the depth of it provided too great a challenge for much to be done.

The fact that the eruption changed the course of the Sarno River and raised the sea beach so that Pompeii was neither on the river nor next to the coast might have had something to do with it being abandoned, as well. Eventually both Pompeii and Herculaneum were forgotten, and their names and exact locations faded into the realm of myth. Vague stories were told of the lost treasures of la Citta (the City). But not until the Renaissance awakened interest in antiquities was any attempt made to find them.

Stories about the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum vary somewhat. Some say they were found in 1599 by an architect named Fontana, who was digging a new course for the Sarno River. Some say Herculaneum was discovered in the 17th century by a peasant who was digging a well.

Serious excavation did not take place until the mid-18th century. The first digging started around 1748. Other work was done toward the end of the century and early in the next, but not much progress was made until Giuseppe Fiorelli took over the project in 1860.

It was Fiorelli who noticed occasional voids in the ash that contained human bones and realized these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies of humans. He came up with a technique whereby plaster was injected into the void, and as it hardened it created an amazingly lifelike form of the victim. The technique worked on animals and plants — anything organic — so the molds created a striking record of what had happened.

A few of these forms are still on display at Pompeii, although many have been taken to museums. The positions of panic and doom, sometimes even expressions of terror, have been captured in eerie detail.

The other thing that is so remarkable about Pompeii is how completely it provides a look at life in the first century. As the archaeologists uncovered the buried city, they found amazing details of daily life: bread left baking in an oven, food and drink left on tables, homes and businesses decorated with mosaics and frescoes.

There is evidence of graffiti on the walls, as well as some marketing and advertising slogans. Bottles of wine have even been found bearing what some historians consider the first marketing pun: Vesuvinum — combining the name of the mountain with the Latin name for wine, vinum.

If you look around, said Sergio, one of the many guides who take visitors through the ruins, "you will see that everything we have in 2007, they had in 79 A.D." — sliding doors, running water, sewage systems, even speed bumps on the cobblestone roads to slow down the chariots. You can still see the ruts from the chariot wheels.

"But," he said, "no TV. For that they had frescoes. Imagine lying on a bench in the dining room, eating and drinking your fill. Throwing up if you eat too much, and eating and drinking more — all the while looking at beautiful frescoes."

At that time, Sergio said, there were about 25,000 people in Pompeii. About half of them were slaves, but for the other half, life was very good, apparently filled with no end of hedonistic pleasures. Pompeii was a prosperous place and even attracted wealthy Romans, who came on holiday. There are remains of one large hotel-like structure.

The city was laid out in a grid, with straight streets and houses and shops on both sides. Today, you can see the shells of villas, big and small. You can see what's left of businesses. There's a gymnasium, some public baths and, yes, some bordellos decorated with erotic art.

There's a food market, the Macellum; a mill, the Pistrinum; and a kind of bar that served both hot and cold beverages, the Thermopolium.

There's an amphitheater set into a slope, with rows and rows where modern benches are sometimes placed for modern concerts.

You can see the huge bases of the pillars of the Basilica, which would have been Pompeii's most important commercial building — the center of the city's economic life, comparable to both court and stock exchange, as we know them. It is easy to appreciate both the size and scope of the place and to picture in your mind what might have gone on here.

Nearby is the Forum Plaza, which would also have hummed with activity on any given day. Today, pillars and arches surround the grassy square.

Among the ruins lining the Forum are the remains of several temples to various gods. This is where offerings would have been made to ensure peace, happiness and prosperity — and the rise of the sun for each new day. Perhaps those offerings became more serious in A.D. 79. In early August of that year, some springs and wells dried up — considered a sign that the gods were displeased.

Then in mid-August, small earthquakes began to take place, but this was "not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania," wrote Pliny the Younger. The mountain had been dormant as long as human history has been in the area; the Romans did not even have a word for volcano. A rather severe earthquake had rocked the region some 17 years earlier, and, in fact, repairs from that were still going on. But apparently no one was worried about the new earth-shaking.

We can look back and see the signs of an imminent eruption, but the city's residents would not have known that. So perhaps there were not more offerings placed in the temples of the Forum. Or perhaps those offerings simply failed.

Today's scientists have pieced together some of what happened. They now estimate the eruption column to have been about 20 miles high and the eruption itself to have lasted about 19 hours. During that time a cubic mile of ash, rock and mud was released, as were poison gases and fumes. The destruction was quick, terrible and complete.

Today, located near towns such as Naples, Sorrento and Positano, Pompeii is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, drawing some 2.5 million visitors a year. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and is part of the larger Vesuvius National Park. It provides an amazing window into the past, an unparalleled look at life in the Roman Empire. And it offers up tantalizing questions to ponder.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com