The advent of this new day found me at a hostel in the town of Pompei, Campania, South Italy. The reason I had ended up there; plus the reason that pretty much anyone ever ends up over there; plus the reason that brought this new town of Pompei to its very existence… is no other than the site of the ancient city of Pompei which is located there: the world’s best example of what an ancient city looked like. So, I with three German friends, we left the hostel, by early morning, bound to spend our day exploring this marvelous archeological site.
After a short walk through the centre of the new town, we were soon approaching the gate of the ancient city. There was, before it, a large, open area, flooded by wandering tourist guides and abounding with outdoor souvenir shops. Into one of those shops we walked -as one of my German companions was looking for buying some gifts. The owner, having had in advance his radar-like ears in readiness to detect the spoken tongue, dashed himself in between of us -like a liquid substance does through open cracks- and spoke a few phrases he knew in German. An instance later, he came back with a plastic bag ready to contain the articles of his merchandise he so positively was assured we were going to buy.
We proceeded to the gate. The full day entry ticket cost us €13 per head. In comparison with other archeological sites in Europe, I did not find this one to be particularly expensive. Especially taking in consider the value of what is to be seen in there -which is far beyond in quality of anything I’ve seen so far- it was a rather fair price.
So, we passed the gate and started strolling along the ancient city’s paved streets: these streets… laid before so many centuries, and buried under ashes for so many more, until they were finally excavated to be used nowadays by tourist throngs and lizards clambering up and down the large slabs in panic upon the latter’s approach.
Coming, myself, from Greece, I’ve had my fair share of visiting ancient ruins. But this was something completely different than anything I’d ever witnessed before. It would probably do injustice to even call it ‘ruins’. It was not about stones, remnants of walls, and self-standing columns scattered here and there around a partly-standing temple amidst a rough, scrubby field. It was more of an abandoned, yet entire city in tact; with streets, pavements, squares, and houses with separate rooms and complete tiled roofs.
The city was rather huge. Back in the day, it counted 20.000 inhabitants. Given that residences were usually one-, or two-storey tall at maximum, its area was analogous to a modern city of 50 or 70.000 inhabitants. I tried to imagine what would Rome have looked like during its heyday, when it was home for up to a million people.
Strolling around the city, you could easily envisage the lives of those ancient people like it was taking place on the very moment… A woman in a kitchen selecting various Mediterranean delicacies out of the ceramic pots, preparing the meal of the day while whistling some pagan tune; a group of children chasing each other around noisomely, holding wooden swords and shields, and excitedly singing some triumphant paean; a bunch of old men sitting under one of those umbrella-shaped pines, staring at the surrounding mountains in the distance, and nostalgically discussing the good old days during some previous emperor’s reign; a conflux of men, dressed in their fine tunics and sandals, forming assemblies around the forum to converse the current public affairs; a merry company sitting around a statue of Dionysus, under a pergola, in the middle of a vineyard, drinking wine out of brass cups, and singing all together some rapturous dithyramb; a crowd of citizens, gathered at the theater, attending in agony the latest play of the time’s leading dramatist, under a starry summer sky; another crowd at the city’s amphitheater cheering ecstatically for the blood-soaked gladiators who were fiercely struggling to slaughter each other in the dusty arena; and then, ultimately, all together fleeing in frenzy, as lumps of incandescent rock from the earth’s guts were poured down on them from the sky like rain, and a blackish-reddish, seething influx of pyroclastic flow was surging through the city streets, devouring everything living in its way.
How ironic… that the same event which caused such a tragic fate to the inhabitants of this city, was, at the same time, responsible for fossilizing the city itself, and delivering it preserved in its completeness for the people of many a subsequent generation to marvel at.