Pompeii: Ancient Modernity

Ancient Modernity

The destruction unleashed upon Pompeii and the surrounding area of Campania in 79 AD, not only erased some of the evidence of a highly sophisticated civilisation that had also been present in other Roman towns like Herculaneum, but had also adjusted the coastline. Pompeii now stands 2km inland when it originally had been much closer to the sea. Pompeii first became a colony of Rome in 90 BC. It was believed the town had come under Roman rule after being originally founded by the Osci or Oscans from Ancient Greece. On the first day of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, only some of the Pompeii townspeople managed to escape by boat from the impending chaos. However, on the second day, many within the town walls had perished. According to an account of the last hours of the Roman author and Natural Philosopher, 'Pliny the Elder', reconstructed by his nephew and heir 'Pliny the Younger,' the fish had floated dead in the Bay of Naples and the birds had fallen from the sky, roasted by the heat polluted air. Pliny the Elder's position as fleet commander of the Roman Navy found him at Misenum on the 24th of August in the 79th year after Christ. Accounts of the eruption had been obtained by survivors of the natural disaster.

The civilisation of Pompeii as a functioning Roman town, was one that was undeniably sophisticated and catered diligently to its inhabitants and its visitors. It provided services to indulge not only one's needs but desires. It boasted separate theatres for poetry, music and drama. The Theatre Piccolo, or Odeon (the small theatre) enjoyed the alchemy of the written word and the musical arts. The larger theatre once witnessed the appeal of the comedic and tragic elements of drama. Such aspects of the town are typically Roman along with the Gladiator barracks, the dormitory of the professional warriors who fought for the sport, and enjoyment of the town. 'Thermopolium', coming from the Greek definition describing a place where something hot is sold, were the cook-shops of the Greco-Roman towns – As poor Roman families would often eat casually in the streets, the Thermopolium were ideal for the townspeople to consume their daily fare. This concept puts one in mind of grabbing a few sly chicken nuggets in the post-night out hours of the dawn. At least we didn't invent the pleb. Bloody Romans!

Pompeii was also a thriving trade centre. Many of the surrounding settlements like Nola, Aceria and Nuceria would transport their produce and goods to Pompeii, which in turn would transport them across the Empire. Hives of commercial activities such as Pompeii would have welcomed many visitors to their gates. Being a centre of business, the townspeople evidently appreciated the importance of taking advantage of unsuspecting outsiders. Granted, the streets provided you with parking, however only for Pompeii chariots. The rent-a-chariot game was apparently a successful one. No foreign chariots allowed. The streets were custom made only for good Pompeian products along with stepping stones for people and animals to avoid the sewage and mire. Small flecks of white granite also lit up the roads at night to afford clear passage for any late night wanderers.

As a centre of commerce, the Pompeians were evidently aware of the significance of wooing any potential clients, even if they weren't allowed to ride in the comfort of their own vehicle. Use of the brothel district was specifically for visiting travellers, as many of those who could afford admission already had their own slaves of which to avail themselves. In order so that outsiders would not lose their way in their search for amusement, large penises were carved onto the pavements and kindly pointed the way to the pleasure district. Just in case one was still uncertain, there was a protruding phallus on every building owned by the brothel, indicating the business conducted inside. Kamasutra-type images were provided above the doors for viewing each prostitute's particular speciality, quite like a menu.

Aside from the amenities available in Pompeii, the normal day-to-day life continued. Family businesses like bakeries, bathhouses and laundries had to earn a source of income from their customers. If an establishment had particular prowess in their service, reviews were inscribed on the side of the building, almost like a present day Yelp or TripAdvisor. Another reason for script appearing on walls along the houses of Patricians was political canvassing. In this particular case, 'Cornelius', was a figure who had been running for the Senate in the time before the eruption. It is often hard for us to imagine a lifestyle that could almost equal our own in logic and sophistication. The comparison becomes almost eerie when we subtract technology from the mix. With drainage and irrigation systems, gymnasiums, public baths and changing rooms, we begin to re-evaluate whether our way of thinking and sense of community was at all different from these ancient pioneers of civilisation. Is it arrogance? Do we assume that we've come so far because the internet enables us to achieve so much? While the Germanic, Celtic, and Gaulish tribes of Europe were living a comparatively primitive and nomadic existence and made their homes in communal long-houses, the Romans enjoyed central heating or hypocaustum in their private Villas which also contained steam rooms, saunas and private studies. Let's catch our pride before we fall, the Romans may not have done anything for us but plenty before us!

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Pompeii: Ancient Modernity