Pompei with the hint of Vesuvius in the background. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE
Pompei with the hint of Vesuvius in the background. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE

The longest queue in Pompeii, an Italian city covered by a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago, is at a small brothel. While the paintings on the walls inside are suitably erotic, it’s hard not to find the little stone beds and their stone pillows in cramped cubicles depressing.

Pompeii, a city on Italy’s west coast, was about 800 years old when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, covering it in volcanic ash and rock, sealing its fate.

The cheap titillation that can be had from looking at naughty pictures in a brothel from 2,000 years ago is obviously a draw point.

“Since its excavation in the 18th century, Pompeii has acquired the reputation of being a permissive, sybaritic place,” says University of Maryland classics professor Judith Hallett in the Smithsonian Magazine.

“Throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, slaves had to cater to the whims of the elite. I think all slaves, male and female, were on duty as potential sex partners for their male masters. If you were a slave, you could not say no.”

But the city has so much more sophistication to offer and admire in a broad sweep; from the obvious to the subtle touches that take keen eyes and time to find. It gives a salutary lesson that people are not dissimilar despite the epoch in which they lived.

Excavations at Pompeii started in the mid-1700s. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE
Excavations at Pompeii started in the mid-1700s. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE

There is the Forum, the administrative, religious and mercantile hub, with majestic, ruined multistorey columns, imposing statues and sense of place, a magnificent open-air theatre, glorious public baths and the simple houses and shops where the less wealthy and important lived and worked.

Pompeii was recovering from a severe earthquake just 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, with its beautiful, vibrant frescoes painted on the walls of villas, courtyard gardens with fountains and pools, trees and plants once again destroyed and, this time, lost under 25m of ash and rock.

Excavations at Pompeii started in the mid-1700s, mainly aimed at seeking out artefacts for collectors. Diggings were only formalised a century later when a more scientific approach was adopted.

Giuseppe Fiorelli, an Italian archaeologist in control of the site in 1850, found a way of making casts of people and animals killed by the hot gases and dust by pouring plaster into the hollow shells their disintegrated bodies left in the ash.

Seeing these casts of children, women and men, dogs writhing in agony and horses at the precise moment of their deaths is massively poignant. It brings home the horror of events so long ago. While the buildings and streets, frescoes, plumbing and artefacts of daily life are fascinating to explore, there is an essentially human tragedy for those who bother to look for it.

An estimated 2,000 people who did not flee Pompeii, a city of about 15,000 people as the volcano rumbled into life, have left their ghostly shells behind.

At one end of Pompeii is a warehouse of artefacts found during diggings. There are shelves of amphorae, plates, statues, carvings and, most importantly, stored with these everyday items, casts of people in their final moments. One is a child, lying on its side, one hand raised to its face, sealed in a dusty glass box. Another is an adult, caught lying peacefully asleep. An adult is frozen in time, sitting with knees drawn up, hands clenched to one side of the face. A dog, trapped in its grotesque death throes, is like some sculptor’s twisted imagination made real.

“We’re digging in an area where a lot of Pompeiians died during the eruption,” Stanford University’s Gary Devore, co-director at the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project, told National Geographic.

“I remind myself all the time that I can investigate in such detail this ancient Roman culture as a direct result of a great human disaster.”

The ancient city was about the size of 64 rugby fields, and two-thirds of it have been excavated. The project is now exploring an area of the city where the less wealthy lived, unlike the fabulous houses that stretch along the southern parts of Pompeii, from the amphitheatre in the east to the Forum and temples in the west.

I remind myself all the time that I can investigate in such detail this ancient Roman culture as a direct result of a great human disaster.
Gary Devore,

It’s easy to step back into Roman times visiting Pompeii, to be struck how ordinary life was, and how similar it is to today. There are shops, laundries, bath-houses, hotels, blocks of flats, bakeries, taverns, brothels and villas, many with gorgeous paintings on the walls, colours almost as fresh as they were two millennia ago.

Looking more closely, there are little engineering feats that delight: from the thick iron staples holding large carved rocks together in walls, perfect arches of clay bricks, marble tiles held away from the walls and floors to circulate steam behind them in bath houses, metal pipes moving water around the city, to giant wheat grinders perfectly carved out of heavy stone.

Precise mosaics on floors, made of tens of thousands of small square tiles, give pleasing symmetry or pictures, speaking of highly skilled artisans. Seamlessly interlocking clay pipes exposed in a broken wall are indicative of plumbing more sophisticated than expected of people from so long ago.

A real treat is to find a building cleared of ash, with no other tourists in it, to be able to stand in a cool, dim room, out of the heat, closely investigating the frescoes, superbly carved statues, the intricate patterns in the painstakingly laid mosaic floors, one with a large, bouncy dog and the warning “beware (of) the dog”.

Another is to look out of the doorway into the sun-bleached courtyard, imagining the splash of long-silent fountains, birds in the trees, the wind stirring the gardens, and the bustle of the city’s streets, just a few metres away.

For some, Pompeii can also be a place of pilgrimage combined with Roman history, architecture, art and engineering, with a special visit to the amphitheatre. It’s a large oval structure that once seated 20,000 fans of bloody gladiator battles, wild animals and other entertainments of the day.

But for people of a certain age, to stand in the middle of the amphitheatre floor, looking 8km north at Vesuvius looming against a perfect blue sky, slowly circling to take in the entrances at either end of the oval and the stone seats, is to revisit the live performance of Pink Floyd late in 1971.

The deserted streets of Pompeii. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE
The deserted streets of Pompeii. Picture: ALLAN SECCOMBE

The band was alone in the overgrown, scruffy amphitheatre, where it was filmed under a blazing sun for a documentary by Adrian Maben, who had an epiphany that this would be the perfect place after he had lost his passport there and returned at twilight to retrieve it.

“The light was dying fast. Bats were flitting around and you could hear millions of insect noises reverberating from one wall to the other. Instinctively I knew this was the place for the film,” the French director says.

“The amphitheatre, the streets, the ruined temples and mosaics play a role that is directly linked to Pink Floyd’s music.”

The venue has been cleaned up since then, giving a better sense of what Pompeii’s citizens would have experienced so long ago. Visitors can run their fingers along the stone balustrade dividing the seats from the baking sand. Ancient words are carved into the rock, another layer of mystery and connection to the past.

Pompeii is an easy destination for those with a long weekend in Rome. The train from Rome to Naples takes between 90 minutes and just shy of three hours, depending on whether it is a high-speed one or the more leisurely, cheaper double-decker train that stops at many stations. The tickets cost between $15 and $77 (R226 and R1,160).

Finding an Airbnb in Naples, particularly near the old city, with its winding, narrow streets infested with locals whizzing around on scooters, is easy.

Finding a spare flat in the centre of the intriguing city, oozing history, gives a base to explore restaurants, excellent coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall takeaway specialists in Italian food.

The train to Pompeii is quick and cheap, a mere 23km from Naples. A ticket costs R68 or €4. The train pulls into the modern town of Pompeii and the walk to the ancient city is along pavements lined with trees and coffee shops. ​