Cities of Vesuvius

- Syllabus Content -

The Physical - geographical setting, natural features and resources

See Chapter 3 of your text book:
"The Physical Environment of Campania" p.25; "Climate" p.26; "Mount Vesuvius and its Effects on the Landscape" p.27; "The Coastline" p.29.

Describe the geographical setting and natural features of Pompeii and Herculaneum.Refer to sources in your answer.
Outline the resources of Pompeii and Herculaneum.Refer to sources in your answer.

Geographical setting

  • Pompeii and Herculaneum are in Campania: a volcanic plain which stretches from the Voltuno R. in the north to the Sorrentine Peninsula in the south.

  • The plain divided by Mt Vesuvius into two regions, the northern region drained by the Volturno R. and the southern region drained by the Sarno R.

  • Pompeii was built on a volcanic spur, 25-40m above sea level, overlooking the mouth of the Sarno R.

  • Pompeii was at a crossroads from North to South and to the east.

  • Herculaneum was built on a steeply sloping spur which ended in a cliff, bounded on both sides by deep ravines. Its views and moderating maritime influence made it an ideal resort town. Strabo commented on Herculaneum.

  • Phlegraean Fields – a volcanic area near Puteoli

  • The main Roman naval station was at Misenum.

The next town is Herculaneum, which occupies a cape jutting out into the sea, where it feels the southwest wind to such an amazing extent that the settlement is a healthy one.
Strabo Geography 5.4.8

It is an area “incredibly favoured by nature.”
Michael Grant Cities of Vesuvius p.15

How [to describe] the Campanian coast and its happy, indeed blessed delightfulness, plainly the handiwork of Nature in her favourite spot!
Pliny the Elder, Natural History Bk III 40

  • The climate is Mediterranean – hot dry summers and mild wet winters.

Campania's coastal area is the finest, not only in Italy but in the entire world. Nowhere is the climate gentler. Spring comes with its flowers twice a year there.
Florus Brief History, 1.11.3 6

Natural features

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The dominant natural feature is Mt. Vesuvius, 1277m. high. The crater circumference is 11 km. (partly encircled by 1110m ridge of Mt Somma).

Diodorus (on Mt Vesuvius) Bibliotheca Historica Book IV, 21
Heracles then moved on from the Tiber, and as he passed down the coast of what now bears the name of Italy he came to the Cumaean Plain. Here, the myths relate, there were men of outstanding strength the fame of whom had gone abroad for lawlessness and they were called Giants. This plain was called Phlegraean ("fiery") from the mountain which of old spouted forth a huge fire as Aetolia did in Sicily; at this time, however, the mountain is called Vesuvius and shows many signs of the fire which once raged in those ancient times.

Strabo Geography Book V, 4
Next after Neapolis comes the Heracleian Fortress, with a promontory which runs out into the sea and so admirably catches the breezes of the southwest wind that it makes the settlement a healthful place to live in... Pompaia, on the River Sarnus — a river which both takes the cargoes inland and sends them out to sea — is the port-town of Nola, Nuceria, and Acherrae... Above these places lies Mt. Vesuvius, which, save for its summit, has dwellings all round, on farm-lands that are absolutely beautiful. As for the summit, a considerable part of it is flat, but all of it is unfruitful, and looks ash-coloured, and it shows pore-like cavities in masses of rock that are soot-coloured on the surface, these masses of rock looking as though they had been eaten out by fire; and hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched. Perhaps, too, this is the cause of the fruitfulness of the country all round the mountain; just as at Catana, it is said, that part of the country which had been covered with ash-dust from the hot ashes carried up into the air by the fire of Aetna made the land suited to the vine; for it contains the substance that fattens both the soil which is burnt out and that which produces the fruits; so then, when it acquired plenty of fat, it was suited to burning out, as is the case with all sulphur-like substances, and then when it had been evaporated and quenched and reduced to ash-dust, it passed into a state of fruitfulness.

Observe Vesuvius. Not long ago it was covered with the grapevine's green shade, and a famous grape wet, nay drowned the vats here. Bacchus loved the shoulders of this mountain more than the hills of Nysa [his birthplace], satyrs used to join their dances here. Here was a haunt of Venus, more pleasant than Lacedaemon to her, here was a place where Hercules left his name. It all lies buried by flames and mournful ash. Even the gods regret that their powers extended to this.
Martial Epigram 4.44

Volcanic soil was very fertile.
A wide variety of crops grown:
from the House of the Centenary

  • vines on slopes of Mt Vesuvius - a fresco from House of the Centenary (left) shows Bacchus wrapped in grapes, Vesuvius as it appeared before the eruption, and Agathodemone, the bearded snake which represents good fortune. Pliny wrote: "It has been observed that Pompeian wines are rather dangerous as they may cause a headache which lasts till noon on the following day." (Pliny the Elder, Natural Histories XIV 70). Also see the wine press with the reconstructed ram's head beam, below, from the Villa of the Mysteries
  • Olives (see the olive press below)
  • flowers for perfume
  • fruit
  • vegetables

Sheep for wool. There is much evidence of textile production, especially the number of fullonicas (e.g. the Fullonica of Stephanus in Pompeii and the House of the Fullery in Herculaneum), and the Building of Eumachia which may have been a wool market and the headquarters of the fullers' guild. Seneca writes that 600 sheep were killed in the earthquake of AD 62 (Seneca, Natural Questions VI 3)

Being on the coast, seafood was plentiful. See the mosaic from the House of the Faun, below. Garum, a fish sauce, was a famous product of Pompeii.

Next comes Campania, a region blessed by fortune. From this bay onwards you find vine-growing hills and a noble tipple of wine famed throughout the world. Over this area the gods of wine and grain fought their hardest, or so tradition tells us… These shores are watered by warm springs; they are famed beyond any other for their shellfish and their fine fish. Nowhere do olives produce more oil – the production strives to match the demands of human pleasure.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History Bk III 60

List the resources of Campania as described by Pliny the Elder.

Volcanic stone for building, olive presses and millstones.
A mosaic from the House of the Faun showing the variety of
sea life abundant in the area.
Wine press, torcula, from the Villa of the Mysteries

Olive press (in the Antiquarium at Boscoreale)
Garum residue (in the Antiquarium at Boscoreale)
There is a naturally occurring powder that produces remarkable results. It is found near Baiae, in the territories of the municipalities that surround Mt. Vesuvius. When mixed with lime and gravel it produces a strong building material, especially useful for piers built out into the sea, as the mixture hardens even under water.
Vitruvius On Architecture 2.6.1 2