How Pompeii Worked

Life in Pompeii

aerial view of Pompeii ruins with Mount Vesuvius in background aerial view of Pompeii ruins with Mount Vesuvius in background
Mount Vesuvius has always loomed in the background of Pompeii's landscape. Ary6/E+/Getty Images

Archaeologists have found evidence of Bronze Age settlements in the area, although eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in 1800 B.C.E. and 1360 B.C.E. likely wiped out everyone from that time [sources: Amery and Curran, Wallace-Hadrill]. Pompeii began to grow into a city around 600 B.C.E., settled by the Oscans, an ancient people of Campania. It was home to a mix of cultures from around the Mediterranean, but the Oscan influence remained strong until the day the city was destroyed. The ruins of Pompeii also reveal that the inhabitants revered Greek culture. The temples, statues, public buildings and decorations in the villas all reflected a high degree of Hellenistic influence.

Pompeii was not the most important city in the Roman Empire, or even in the Campania region in southern Italy, but it was a particularly wealthy city. Before its destruction, Pompeii sat on the coast of the Bay of Naples near the mouth of the Sarno River, making it a trade hub for the region. The waters of the Sarno and the volcanic soils deposited by Mount Vesuvius combined to give the area rich farmland — volcanic soils are notably high in nutrients and the river provides a ready source of irrigation. And the limestone, called tufa, used to build the large public buildings and the villas and mansions of Pompeii's richest citizens was likely quarried from the Monti Lattari mountain range just south of the city. The wealthiest families in Pompeii made their fortunes primarily by making and exporting wine, although the region also produced olive oil and textiles [sources: Ling, Zanker].

The wealth in Pompeii allowed the arts to flourish and gave the city its distinctive array of marble and bronze statues and marble-fronted public buildings. Among Pompeii's more impressive buildings were temples to Jupiter, Venus, Augustus and others; an amphitheater that could hold 20,000 people (Pompeii's entire population at its peak); elaborate public baths; public parks and gymnasia; an entire theater district; and a sporting arena. A riot that broke out during an athletic competition between Pompeii and the rival city Nuceria in 59 C.E. was an early case of sports hooliganism [sources: Amery and Curran, Ling]. A wide range of housing types existed in Pompeii, from lavish estates to pergulae, small dwellings like apartments that were usually above shops or workshops.