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What We Learned About Rome From The Perfect Preservation Of Pompeii

By 02.03.14

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In 79 AD, the city of Pompeii was famously wiped out by an eruption on Mount Vesuvius, something depicted larger than life on screens this February in Pompeii. It was an instant death: The heat suddenly surged 482 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of the town’s remaining citizens, many of whom had fled at the first signs of trouble, were killed before they could even wonder what had happened. Buried under ash, Pompeii was almost perfectly preserved, and is one of the longest-running archaeological digs in the world.

And it’s taught us a lot about ancient Rome, especially the day-to-day life not preserved in the official history. Here’s a look into what Pompeii has taught us about the past.

What We Thought We Knew About Rome

The problem with history, especially Roman history, boils down to a lack of sources. As any historian can tell you, primary sources, that is, actual records from the people who lived through it, are preferable for an era, but incredibly hard to find. For centuries, we had to largely take the word of Christian sources for what Rome was like, and they were just a wee bit biased. Being fed to lions does make you hold a grudge, really. So the discovery, and ongoing unearthing, of Pompeii is one of the greatest primary sources in human history of one of the most important eras of human history.

Even if what archaeologists are uncovering are most walls covered in obscene graffiti and street signs with dancing dongs on them. Yep, Rome was weird.

Pompeii Was Struggling To Survive Before The Volcano Blew

Pompeii had been having trouble well before the eruption buried it for good; a massive earthquake had struck the city in 62 AD and destroyed a number of homes, as well as wrecking the water supply, meaning fresh water was in short supply and the city was rapidly losing population to places that were, you know, clean. It’s not inconceivable Pompeii, as a city, would have collapsed economically, if a volcano hadn’t done it for them.

Despite That, The Romans Lived Their Lives In Public

Imagine, while you’re in your living room, some stranger walks in off the street, hangs out with you, watches some TV, and it’s no big deal. That’s pretty much how Roman houses were laid out, something we largely know thanks to Pompeii. The atrium and gardens were where you transacted most of your life, and they were public. It was weird to close your door and demand some privacy; bedrooms in Pompeii were windowless tiny cubbies designed only to be slept in and departed from. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that…

The Streets Were Full, Literally, Of Crap

Pompeii had no sewers; they relied on water running through the streets to sluice away waste and other crud. The smell, according to its own citizens, was akin to a burning manure pile somebody had hidden tires in. It’s theorized that one of the jobs in Pompeii was essentially street-scraper: Somebody paid to get those turds off the streets and into a waste pit.

Just to add to the stench, there were plenty of urinals… which were basically just jars on the street. The urine was sold to wool processors, so at least the free market was at work and they even had recycling!

Your Average Roman Used Penises As Just General Decoration

You’d be forgiven, looking through Pompeii’s ruins, for thinking these people did nothing but think about sex, because there are dongs pretty much everywhere. Even the dongs had dongs. Centuries of Christian oppression had covered up that to the Romans, a penis was like a cornucopia or a pretty vase of flowers: A symbol of life and fertility. So they basically went around slapping dongs on everything, because, hey, who doesn’t like fertility? Roman hipsters put a dong on it. The Roman Martha Stewart decorated with dongs. And that isn’t even getting into the Roman’s famously open attitudes about sex, which it turns out the early Christians hadn’t really exaggerated that much: Let’s just say there are sections of Pompeii kids can’t see unless you sign a release.

The Romans Loved Graffiti

When you think Rome, you probably think beautiful, pristine marble columns and shining white plaster walls. In reality, your average wall in Pompeii was more like a New York City subway car in the 1980s. It wasn’t art, though; the Romans used graffiti on every surface, about every possible topic from prostitute prices to asinine complaints to humdrum observations about daily life. So, like Twitter, except harder to read.

We Can See Exactly How People Died

The ash fell so quickly that voids were created; as they’re excavated, they’re filled with plaster or resin so we can get a sense of who the person was. Sometimes, the voids even have their last facial expression, preserved perfectly for all time. And, yes, a lot of them were, unsurprisingly, terrified. If you want to see what it’s like for yourself, there is, of course, an app for that.

Pompeii is a compelling, fascinating place, even to this day, and we learn more every day. We just hope nobody clues in Martha Stewart to ancient Roman decorating tips.


TAGSarchaeologyMoviesPompeiiromescience

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