Imagine you’re in your house, loading lunch dishes in the dishwasher. On the t.v.: a political ad. On the countertop, your to-do list for the afternoon: eggs from the grocery, light bulbs from Home Depot, a new shower curtain from WalMart. In the bathroom, the sound of someone you love brushing their teeth.
When the blast comes, the entire house lurches to one side. Windows shatter inward. The power flickers, then fails. Plaster falls from the ceiling; sheetrock cracks and shatters.
When the ground quits shaking and the dust begins to settle, you stumble through the ruined living room to the open maw of the window. A hot, swift wind buffets your body and lifts your hair. Even so, what you see makes your blood run cold.
Where the horizon should be, there is nothing but a cloud wall: black, boiling, and shot through with flickering lightning and angry red flames. As you watch, it expands upward — more than a thousand feet into the air — and the noonday sun gives way to an eerie amber twilight.
We’re in 21st Century Pompeii on a bright spring morning, with blue skies above and bright blooms on the ground below. Around us, stretching as far as the eyes can see, lies a city built to support 20,000 people.
The paved, curbed streets of Pompeii — with ruts for guiding chariot wheels and stepping stones for pedestrian crosswalks — fan out in every direction. Homes and shops, bars and restaurants, amphitheaters and temples, and bathhouses and brothels — many reduced to chest-high ruins, but a few still intact and ready for business — feel as though they’re waiting for the residents to return.
The residents will not, but tourists do. For more than 200 years, Pompeii has been receiving tourists from all over the world. The earliest visitors came to gawk at the bones of survivors — which actually were random bones stolen from a local graveyard and assembled into near-complete skeletons:
As a resident of the 21st century, if you could go back to Pompeii in 79 A.D., you’d be very comfortable.
If you were reasonably wealthy — and most of Pompeii’s citizens were — you’d have running water in your home, courtesy of the aqueducts. You’d be the envy of the neighborhood, having just replaced your shuttered windows with panes of clear glass. You’d paint the interior walls of your living room a bold red to go with the gold and orange tones in the bedrooms.
You’d admire the elaborate, one-of-a-kind mosaic being installed as part of the dining room floor.
While a crew of men continue the work at the house, you’d walk to the restaurant across the street, where customers choose from five made-fresh-daily pots of stew.
You’d pay a quick visit to your doctor, who might prescribe an herbal tea to settle your stomach. (Thankfully, you’ve no need for his elaborate collection of surgical scalpels, dental scrapers, or gynecological instruments.)
You’d spend the afternoon at the spa, soaking in three tubs (cool, warm, and hot) before getting a massage, getting your hair styled, and catching up on local gossip.
None of these comforts meant much in August of 79 A.D.
Most every movie you’ve seen about Pompeii shows a rumbling, smoking Mt. Vesuvius looming over the city. But this simply wasn’t the case. The mountain is an artifact of the explosive eruption itself; before that fateful day, Vesuvius was little more than a hill. Residents knew, though, that the area was troubled. Quakes were common, and a large quake in 69 A.D. — ten years earlier — did significant damage to the port and the city itself.
For months after that event, anarchy ruled the city, and about half its population departed. By 79 A.D., only 11,000 people remained, working to restore Pompeii to its former glory as Rome’s favorite high-end tourist destination.
When the end came, it came quickly. The initial blast sent tons of debris into the sky. Local guides still an old and inaccurate story: that residents didn’t understand what was going on, that they lingered in Pompeii for hours after the blast, that they didn’t get out until it was too late.
The true story, uncovered by science, is much more terrifying: when the volcanic vent opened, a flash of heat instantly raised the local air temperature to 482 degrees Fahrenheit. Every living thing within eight miles of the volcano died instantly. Over the next six hours, ash and rock rained down, burying the city and its inhabitants in a layer more than seventy-five feet deep. Cut off from air and the elements, Pompeii and her citizens were preserved — suspended in time like flies caught in amber.
Our tour of Pompeii covers only a very small fraction of the city. We see the amphitheater, a merchant’s garden townhouse (with an expansive courtyard), a massive bathhouse, and a collection of mosaics. We spend perhaps two hours there; exploring the entire city could take days.
The bright, spring weather draws a lively crowd: tourists, school children, locals. The atmosphere is like a carnival, with people queueing up to tour popular sites and American tourists being scolded for posing on top of artifacts and works of art. (One well-fed woman objects when shooed away from her seat on a recovered statue: “That ain’t art! It’s just rocks!”)
We’re caught up in the energy, strolling quickly down the streets, marveling at the frescoes and mosaics, and enjoying the magic of being immersed in a city built two millennia before we were born.
The mood shifts, though, when we come across a display in an expansive square. Almost lost among racks of recovered wine vessels and Pompeiian pottery: the body of one of the victims.
He is a boy in a simple shirt and short pants, no more than four or five years old. He lies on his side, arms outstretched. Tourists press in around me, pushing and shoving, snapping photo after photo on their iPhones. The figure on display is not an actual body, but a cast of one, made by pouring plaster into the shell of compressed ash that buried the boy. Even so, something about his size and shape and expression chills me … and, to be honest, haunts me to this day.