How Pompeii Worked

statue of Apollo in the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii statue of Apollo in the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii
A replica of a bronze statue of the god Apollo in a Pompeiian temple. The architecture and art that remains in Pompeii offers a peek into everyday life in the ancient city. Photography by Jeremy Villasis/Getty Images

Felix, a slave in Pompeii, is already tired, even though it's only midday. He's been hard at work in the midsummer heat, the clear blue sky offering no shelter from the blazing sun, save for the occasional breeze off the Mediterranean Sea. However, he has a rest period, so he and a few other slaves trudge back to the center of Pompeii along the Via dell'Abbondanza. The rich smell of baking bread fills the air, so he buys some, then purchases dried nuts and fish at a nearby thermopolium, where food comes ready to eat in clay jars. The handful of asses (ancient Roman coins) he uses to pay for his meal comes from the meager wage his master provides, but it's worth it on a day like today.

Because it's a day unlike any other, as he'll soon realize. It is Aug. 24, 79 C.E.

As he eats and talks with other slaves, the sky to the northwest fills with a sudden, terrible blaze, before a massive black cloud rises on a great pillar of ash and smoke above Mount Vesuvius. The earth rumbles beneath his feet, and some of the older people who've lived in Pompeii for nearly 20 years shake their heads. The mountain has been unquiet before.

But never like this. Before long he joins a growing crowd fleeing the city. Ash and shards of hot rock are falling from the sky. Looking back, he can see thick drifts of ash collecting on roofs and filling the streets. Pompeii is dying before his eyes.

This is the true story of the Roman city of Pompeii and the people who lived there. It's also the story of the city's sudden destruction, and the eventual rediscovery of ruins that offer an incomparable window into life in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago.