How Pompeii Worked

Pompeii Today

vineyards in Pompei vineyards in Pompei
A woman looks at a cluster of grapes, with the ruins of Pompeii in the background. The modern city of Pompei is home to the ancient ruins of Pompeii. Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

The ruins of Pompeii have suffered serious deterioration. A 1980 earthquake, bombing during World War II, damage from vandals and tourists, rainwater seeping into the buildings and inconsistent maintenance have all taken a heavy toll on the 2,000-year-old buildings. A moratorium on further excavations in the late 1990s focused all efforts at the sites on preserving rooms and buildings already uncovered. But the administration and care of the ruins have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Several major structures have collapsed completely, including the Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani, a training school and home for the city's gladiators, which fell in 2010.

In 2012, the European Union and Italian government invested 105 million Euros (more than $120 million) into The Great Pompeii Project, an effort to revitalize, repair and preserve the ruins by bringing in an army of archaeologists and preservation specialists [source: Parco Archeologico di Pompei]. The Great Pompeii Project and other preservation efforts, particularly those in Herculaneum, have greatly improved access to the sites and restored many of the frescoes and mosaics to their original vivid colors. Unfortunately, heavy tourist traffic, vandalism and weather continue to be a problem. Drainage from the modern towns of Ercolano and Pompei seeps into the historic buildings, causing erosion and collapses [source: Stewart]. Nevertheless, a large portion of Pompeii (though not all of it) is open to visitors — entry costs between $10 and $20.

Pompeii and other related historic sites (Herculaneum, Oplontis and Boscoreale) are southeast of the city of Naples, Italy, whose metropolitan area is highly populated. While no eruption on the scale of the 79 C.E. one has happened since then, significant eruptions of Mount Vesuvius occurred in 1906 and 1944. Because it's been so long since the last eruption, there is concern about a looming major eruption so close to Italy's third largest city.

The influence of Pompeii and its tragic fate is echoed through 2,000 years of art and writing. In addition to the tens of thousands of photographs that exist of the frescoes, mosaics, statues and buildings, the destruction of the city has been a popular subject for artists of every era since the city's rediscovery. Stories, art exhibitions, songs and video games have featured Pompeii and its violent end.

Even second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ruminated on Pompeii's story — he seemed to be in an especially gloomy mood when he wrote, "How many whole cities have met their end: Helike, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others ... In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands" [source: Ling].

Author's Note

I didn't really know much about Pompeii aside from repeatedly watching that Pink Floyd movie filmed in the ruined amphitheater when I was in college. I knew the general outline, of course. But I'd never really thought about what was going on with those preserved bodies, thinking they'd somehow been petrified by the ash rather than being plaster casts of their hollowed-out death scenes. It's a shame they've had so much trouble keeping the site intact, but things seem to be improving. Pompeii is now definitely on the short list of places I really want to visit someday.

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More Great Links


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