And the crowd knew the face of him they had doomed to the fangs of the beast – then their victim – now their
warner: and through the stillness again came his ominous voice – “The hour is come!”
The Christians repeated the cry. It was caught up – it was echoed from side to side – woman and man, childhood
and old age repeated, not aloud, but in a smothered and dreary murmur – “THE HOUR IS COME!”
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Bart.
The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)
On the 24th of August, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and two days later, when the black smoke and flaming
excrescences finally subsided, twelve feet of volcanic debris covered Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeia-norum. The
first eight or nine feet consisted of pumice, on top of which were layers of hard ash. An eyewitness wrote that when
the sun finally shone after the long darkness it made the omnipresent ash look like a blanket of snow. Pompeii,
sacred to Venus, lay buried without hope of recovery. Nearby Herculaneum, a city whose name proclaimed the
protection of Hercules, vanished under more than twenty feet of mud. The condensing volcanic steam had caused
torrential rains that sent boiling streams down the mountainside. Here, along the beguiling coast that surrounds the
Bay of Naples, where leafy vineyards had adorned the slopes of Vesuvius, Venus and Hercules were suddenly
The Roman poet Martial, writing only a decade or so after the disaster, felt constrained to observe that what had
happened exceeded the limits of divine control. Near the mountainside that Bacchus loved, where satyrs lately
danced, “Everything lies buried by flames and gloomy ash. The gods would not have wanted this to happen.” One could
more easily believe that the Giants of old, who were said to lie dormant beneath the mountains of the region, had
rebelled against the gods. Some observers swore that they had seen the huge figures of Giants stalking through the
Certain residents of Pompeii, who had escaped soon enough to avoid the sulfurous fumes, returned to their homes to
dig out what they could. Inevitably, plunderers arrived to steal whatever was attractive and portable. Despite the
best efforts of a special committee appointed by the emperor Titus to assist in reconstruction efforts and emergency
funding, Pompeii and Herculaneum were abandoned. According to Plutarch, many visitors to the area were unable to
tell exactly where the lost cities were situated. It was not long before they were forgotten. Over the centuries the
fertile earth buried the cities of Vesuvius still deeper.
In modern times, however, they have taken on a new life. Although Herculaneum was the first to be explored in the
early 18th century, the resurrection of Pompeii has proceeded far more vigorously than that of its sister city. The
pumice and ash that had settled on Pompeii were less difficult to disengage than the solidified mud that engulfed
Hercula-neum; and besides, the town of Resina sits astride much of Herculaneum’s mud.
From the middle of the 18th century down to the present, Pompeii has fired the imagination of travelers, authors,
and artists. It set new fashions in domestic architecture and interior decoration; it inspired Josiah Wedgwood. It
supplied a dazzling new subject for opera. And it galvanized generations of preachers and moralists even before
someone spotted an antique inscription on the site with the words Sodoma Gomora.
Bulwer-Lytton’s sentimental novel on the last days of Pompeii, a Roman Cone with the Wind, was an enormous
success. It had all the elements of melodrama: a pair of lovers kept apart by a villainous priest, but united by a
blind flower girl who rescues them from the destruction of the city because she can “see” her way through the
darkness that falls over it.
The obsession with Pompeii spanned the ocean. The so-called “Pompeian” luxury edition of Bulwer-Lytton, published at
Boston in 1891, carries a proud publisher’s note: “The interiors of a Pompeian house herein given are reproduced
from photographs of the interior of the Pompeia, a building erected in Saratoga, N.Y., by Mr. Smith, which is as
nearly as possible an exact facsimile of the house of Pansa as described by Bulwer.” Nearly ninety years later, a
1978 issue of Classical World announces that Pompei-ana Inc., of Indianapolis, is launching a “nationwide
fund-raising campaign” to reconstruct, presumably in Indianapolis, the Pompeian house of Marcus Tibur-tinus,
“completely re-equipped as a living museum of classical heritage.”
For all its excesses, such enthusiasm is easy to understand. In Pompeii, as in some parts of Herculaneum, we seem to
come closer to the people of antiquity than anywhere else. The cities of Vesuvius were still living when they were
buried. The homes and shops, the streets and walls, the obscene graffiti and the pretentious election posters all
constitute a real world in which real persons moved.
Through the genius of Giuseppe Fiorelli, who from 1860 to 1875 conducted the first truly scientific excavations at
Pompeii, the very forms of the inhabitants of the dead city were recovered. Fiorelli realized that by introducing
plaster into the cavities left in the ash by bodies long since decayed he could produce casts. Thus, from natural
molds came those electrifying shapes of Pompeians in their last moments, in their desperate attempts to find
Together with the skeletons previously uncovered, the casts of the dead conjure up an unforgettable picture of the
city in its last hours. A doorkeeper had covered himself and his child with pillows. The priests of Isis
(Bulwer-Lytton’s villain was one of them) had tried to escape with the goddess’s treasure but were struck down one
by one in the course of their flight. Sixty gladiators died in their barracks, along with a well-dressed woman,
whose presence there has excited much curiosity. One of the most celebrated casts reveals a dog chained to its post.
In the past decade, Fiorelli’s technique has been used to recover the roots of trees and plants from the cavities
surviving in Pompeian gardens. The detail and immediacy of our knowledge of Pompeii are quite without parallel.
The discovery of numerous representa-tions of erect phalluses, not to mention a delightful tripod composed of three
insouciant and sexually aroused satyrs, created an aura of wickedness that lingers over the city even today. A
remarkable sculpture depicting the copulation of the rustic god Pan with a somewhat puzzled goat caused a
considerable stir in the 18th century. For a long time many an uninitiated visitor received the impression that the
omnipresent phalluses, which were in fact nothing more than charms to avert the evil eye, proclaimed the location of
brothels; some of the better-excavated streets appeared to contain nothing else. In “The Present Estate of Pompeii,”
Malcolm Lowry spoke of “a whole street of ruined brothels” with small stone interiors that seemed to have been made
“to accommodate the consummations of some race of voluptuous dwarfs.” Only one brothel has been securely identified
in Pompeii; it displayed, in the absence of anything like our modern erotic manuals, instructive paintings on its
Pompeii was no more sinful than most cities. Even if we find the use of the phallic charms a little strange, it was
and is a part of Mediterranean life. In a sense, Europe needed to think of Pompeii as a city of sin to accept the
fact of its horrifying destruction. Bulwer-Lytton’s Christian prophet, crying out that the hour had come,
transformed a meaningless disaster into a moral tale.
The real Pompeii was one of the smaller commercial towns of the Campa-nian coast of Italy. This is the region around
the Bay of Naples that had been colonized by Greeks between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. Some of the cities
on the bay, such as Cumae, Puteoli (Pozzuoli), and Naples itself, retained their Greek character well into the time
of the Roman Empire; and many a wealthy Roman who owned a villa on the coast rejoiced in the deliciously foreign
atmosphere. A few cities, such as Baiae, became holiday resorts, but many, while maintaining local standards of
taste and luxury, continued to be committed to trade and agriculture. Pompeii was one of these.
The city was built on a spur of land formed by a flow of lava in some ancient eruption of Vesuvius. Close to the
mouth of the Sarno River, it was ideally suited to be an emporium for inland trade. To the fundamental Greek
influence on Pompeii were added the traditions of various indigenous peoples, notably Etruscans in the sixth and
fifth centuries B.C. and Samnites later. Although there is some reason to think that Vesuvius may have erupted in
the sixth century B.C., it is clear that from that time until A.D. 79 it remained dormant.
As the Roman Republic passed into the Roman Empire, Pompeii’s agriculture and trade were evidently successful: A
number of wealthy citizens can be identified. Civic affairs were lively, and the populace rejoiced in its games and
gladiators. Like many a small town, Pompeii engaged in a spirited rivalry with one of its more conspicuous
neighbors, in this case Nuceria. Tacitus records that in the year A.D. 59 the tempers of spectators at a
gladiatorial contest in the amphitheater of Pompeii became so inflamed that the Nucerians who were present began to
trade insults with the Pompeians. The exchanges soon led to violence. In the wake of mutilations and killings, the
senate at Rome banned all gladiatorial shows for ten years.
Only three years after the riot a more serious calamity befell the city. The whole Campanian region was shaken by a
severe earthquake, which is now thought to have been a seismic prelude to the eruption of A.D. 79. The magnitude of
the disturbance of February 5, A.D. 62, was noted at the time by the philosopher Seneca. He singled out Pompeii’s
neighbor, Her-culaneum, as badly damaged: “Part of the city is in ruins, and what is left is only barely standing.”
The excavations at both Pompeii and Herculaneum have provided ample proof of the severity of that earthquake: A
large number of Pompeian buildings were still being repaired when Vesuvius erupted. Had they all been repaired, much
of the glorious painting in earlier styles would have been obliterated in renovation. The catalogue of the London
Pompeii exhibition in 1977 notes ironically, “If it was the city’s destiny to be preserved for posterity as a
monument to a way of life, the eruption of 79 came just in time.” Certainly it is the wall paintings, with their
evocations of stage scenery and their brilliant colors (especially red), as well as the sumptuous private houses,
with their atria and peristyles, that have had the most profound impact on people in the modern world.
When the end came, Pliny, then only 17 but destined to become a famous letter writer, was at Misenum with his uncle.
In a celebrated letter to Tacitus, who was then collecting material for his Histories, he wrote that in the
early afternoon of August 24, A.D. 79, an unusual cloud appeared over Campania. It resembled most of all, said
Pliny, an umbrella pine tree, with a high trunk branching out at the top. The uncle, an indefatigable observer of
natural phenomena, summoned a boat from which to view the event at closer range. His nephew refused an invitation to
go along and stayed behind to read-and survive. The old man attempted to land on the coast in the vicinity of
Pompeii and Herculaneum but was prevented by the falling pumice and ash. So he put in at the costal town of Stabiae,
farther along the coast. There he died of the fumes while trying to escape.
Meanwhile, for the young Pliny at Misenum, reading soon became impossible. He tells a gripping tale of that terrible
By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint. The buildings around us were already tottering, and the
open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed. This
finally decided us to leave the town. We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone
else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by
pressing hard behind in a dense crowd. Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary
experiences which thoroughly alarmed us. The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different
directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones. We also
saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: At any rate it receded from the shore so that
quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by
forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning
magnified in size.
My mother implored, entreated, and commanded me to escape as best I could – a young man might escape, whereas she
was old and slow and could die in peace as long as she had not been the cause of my death too. I told her I refused
to save myself without her, and grasping her hand forced her to quicken her pace. She gave in reluctantly, blaming
herself for delaying me. Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: A dense black cloud
was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a Hood. . . .
Pliny’s is a true story. It is better than Bulwer-Lytton’s and briefer.