August 18, 2012

History Haunted Pompeii: In the Shadow of Vesuvius

On August 24, AD 79 -- nineteen hundred and thirty-three years ago -- Mount Vesuvius roused itself from a long sleep and erupted. In the space of 42 hours, the thriving Roman seacoast town of Pompeii was buried under a 23-foot layer of volcanic ash and lapilli. Other towns for miles around, famously including Herculaneum, were wiped out, too. The landscape was changed forever and, in time, Pompeii herself was forgotten. But she guarded her secrets well, preserving them until 1748 when a pickax strike broke through her stone shroud. Our understanding of everyday life in ancient Rome changed forever.

As it happens, I’m finishing up an excellent NY Times bestseller by Robert Harris titled “Pompeii.” He’s an exceptionally good storyteller, and his approach  to the town’s last days is exciting, beautifully researched, intelligent, and wonderfully imagined. I highly recommend it.
Reading “Pompeii” also drew me back to my own unforgettable visit to the town many years ago. I’d been traveling around Europe auditioning for ballet companies. The audition season fell late in the year with a hiatus during the Christmas holiday, and being lonely and bored, decided to make good use of my Eurail Pass, jump on a train, and head south for Rome. No plan; just a whim.

It was the perfect time of year to visit: mild weather and only a handful of tourists. I met one—a girl from Chicago—while exchanging deutsch marks for lira, and after a month on my own, hearing and speaking (poorly) mostly German, it was wonderful to chat with someone from home. She’d been on her own for awhile, too, so we decided to hang out and see Rome together.

After an intoxicating day of tramping around the Eternal City, we decided to visit Pompeii. So, early the next day, we set out, arriving by mid-morning. The sky was slightly overcast, the weather cool, and luck had smiled on us—Pompeii was utterly deserted. In fact, at the entrance to the ruins, we met the only other visitors that day: a history professor from Texas college and his wife. Pompeii was their passion; they knew her treasures and secrets inside and out.

So, for the rest of the day, my friend and I enjoyed a guided tour of the ruins. The professor knew exactly where an excavated room or courtyard displayed an awesomely preserved fresco or a beautiful fountain. He knew where to find 2000 year old graffiti and what it said, and could tell us what vendors had sold in this or that shop, the purpose of this or that public building or temple, and so on.

What I never forgot was the silence of Pompeii. It is truly a city of the dead. Two-thousand people—15 per cent of the town’s entire population—were suffocated or burned to death by the hot gases and ash that enveloped the town on August 25. A final discharge of pyroclastic material finished the job, engulfing the walls and burying victims. Today, the wind slipping through the gaping doors and windows gives occasional voice, but that is all. There is a sadness about the place. A solemnity.

Oddly, no one has seriously claimed that Pompeii is haunted. You would think that a site of sudden, violent, and tragic death on such a large scale would be. To touch the warm temple stones, walk streets that were buried for centuries, peer into shops, homes, and garden, or gaze upon exquisitely preserved painting, portraits, mosaics and bronzes is to touch the past. Close your eyes and reach for it. It seems so near, just beyond Time’s veil. Yet, Pompeii is only haunted by its history, not the souls of the dead; haunted by what happened within a span of two days and its preserved visions of daily life flash-frozen in volcanic debris.

Now I smile with one last memory—a surreal moment while sitting high up in the stone seats of Pompeii’s vast amphitheatre, looking out across the arena to gaze at distant Mt. Vesuvius. (The town’s amphitheatre is the oldest known building designed for gladiatorial games.) My friend and I had not thought to bring along food for the excursion, but the professor and his wife had come wonderfully prepared and were delighted to share. So, in the presence of that sleeping volcano, surrounded by a city that never left the first century AD,  we four tore soft chunks of bread from fat, round, freshly-baked Italian loaf and smeared it with American peanut-butter. Bless his heart, the professor never traveled without it! It tasted marvelous.

In addition to these memories, I have one precious souvenir from that incredible day—a tiny cube of marble that once may have graced a mosaic. As we four strolled through the ruins, the professor spied it, picked it up, and gave it to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have kept it, but I did and treasure it still. It’s my small connection to history-haunted Pompeii, and I hope, like a good luck charm, it will someday bring me back to her for another visit.

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