Cities of Vesuvius

- Syllabus Content -

Stages of occupation / Brief historical overview

See pp. 2-9 of your text book.

Early Pompeii

  • Inhabited as early as 8th Century BC. Small permanent settlement by end of 7th Century BC. Traces of the original settlement remain in narrow less‑organised streets of Oldtown (Pompeii).
  • According to Strabo, Pompeii and Herculaneum were settled by the Oscans. The name of Herculaneum suggests a Greek influence.

  • Two Theories of settlement:
  1. Inhabited by Greeks from Greek colony of nearby Cumae.
  2. Native inhabitants amalgamated small open hamlets on the Sarno plain into a single more easily­-defended site.

  • Apollo was the main god of the town.
  • Pompeii grew as an important market place because of the fertile valley it overlooked and its place at the crossroads inland and north along the coast.
  • From late 7th Century BC it was under Etruscan influence. Pompeii’s first city wall dates from this period and encompassed the entire city area.
  • May have gone into a decline during the 5th Century BC.

Samnite Pompeii

  • By the end of the 5th Century BC, Samnite tribes from the Apennines had taken control of much of Campania including Capua, Cumae, Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Etruscans were expelled from the area.
  • Samnites spoke Oscan (related to Umbrian and Latin).
  • During “Limestone” period (c. 400 BC to 180 BC), Pompeii’s town plan was established.
  • The Samnites were defeated by the Romans in about 290 BC.
  • In 202 BC, Pompeii became an “ally” (socii ) of Rome.

Roman Pompeii

  • In 91 BC the Social Wars began, in which Rome’s allies in Italy fought to gain Roman citizenship. Pompeii was besieged by Sulla - some of the damage of this siege can still be seen in parts of Pompeii’s walls. Though not militarily successful, the allies succeeded in gaining citizenship in 89 BC.
  • In 80 BC Pompeii became a Roman colony and a large number of veterans (estimates range up to 5,000) from the Roman army were settled there in confiscated property.
  • In the late Republic period (80 BC - 20 BC), the Temple of Jupiter in the Forum was rededicated as a Capitolium, sacred to the Capitoline trio of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno and Minerva. The Temple of Venus was built (Venus was Sulla’s protectress) and other significant works were the Forum Baths and the Amphitheatre (c. 70 BC).
  • In the Empire period (20 BC - AD 79), further development took place: the Large Palaestra next to the Amphitheatre was built, as was the Building of Eumachia. New temples were constructed (the Sanctuary of the Lares and Temple of Fortuna Augusta) and other Temples were restored.
  • The major development in this period was the provision of running water via an aqueduct built to service the Misenum naval base. This allowed water to be piped directly into some wealthy people’s houses and into the public fountains which were placed along the main streets.
  • Latin replaced Oscan as Pompeii’s official language in 80 BC when Pompeii became a Roman colony.

Riot in the Amphitheatre
The riot from the House of the Gladiators

  • In AD 59, a riot occurred in the amphitheatre between the spectators from Pompeii and Nuceria in which many were killed or wounded.

  • The incident was recorded by Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome:
“…abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best. Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital. Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children.”

  • The Roman senate investigated the riot. The senators placed a ban on gladiatorial shows in the amphitheatre for ten years and exiled the instigators of the riot.

(a marble relief from the house of Caecilius Jocundus)

  • In AD 62, a major earthquake struck Campania and caused extensive damage to Pompeii and other towns in the area.

  • Seneca described the earthquake:
“Pompeii, the famous city in Campania, has been laid low by an earthquake which also disturbed all the adjacent districts… it occurred in the days of winter, a season which our ancestors used to claim was free from such disaster… (it) caused great destruction in Campania…”

  • Many of the public buildings and houses in Pompeii were extensively damaged and repair work was still being carried out when Pompeii was destroyed in 79. The economic life of Pompeii was also severely disrupted by the earthquake.

Eruption of Vesuvius
(The last major eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1944)
Vesuvius in 1944
Vesuvius in 1944

  • The eruption of Mt Vesuvius began in the afternoon of 24 August AD 79. It began with a massive explosion that sent a mushroom cloud of dust and rock over 20 km into the air. Throughout the afternoon and into the night, debris fell upon Pompeii and surrounding areas to a depth of over 2 metres.

  • The next, and most destructive phase of the eruption began the following morning. A series of pyroclastic surges destroyed any remaining life and completely buried Pompeii.

  • An eyewitness description of the eruption, from the vantage point of Misenum, on the northern headland of the Bay of Naples, was written by Pliny the Younger, who described the death of his uncle in a letter to the historian Tacitus.

  • It is believed that many residents of Pompeii escaped following the initial explosion of Vesuvius. The skeletal remains that have been found at Pompeii suggest that those who didn’t escape suffered a quick but agonising death.