History of Pompeii



Today Pompeii is located a few kilometers from the coast, but in ancient times the city was located closer to the sea. Archaeological excavations below the cultural level of 79 years show that Pompeii has been destroyed before, but people managed to return and rebuild their houses. Around 1780 BC, for example, as a result of an unusually strong eruption (known today as the “Avellino eruption”), millions of tons of hot lava, ash and stones rose 30 km above the ground. This prehistoric catastrophe destroyed almost every village, settlement and fields 20 km from the mountain. Over time, the memory of this eruption was lost, and new settlers settled the land, unaware of the danger.


Early City History

Recent excavations have shown that near the modern city of Nola there has been a settlement since the early 1st millennium BC. There was a settlement that existed at the end of the 7th century B.C. to move it closer to the mouth of the river. According to mythological tradition, this new settlement – Pompeii – was founded by the demigod Heracles, in reality probably by the Osci. The meaning of the Oscan place name "Pompeii" cannot be clearly clarified. It is often derived from the Oscan numeral pompe (“five”), and a connection with the ancient Greek πομπή pompē (“procession”) was also sometimes considered. According to Strabo, the population of the city consisted of Osci, Etruscans, Pelasgians and Samnites in historical times. Nothing is known about the history of the rapidly growing city during the time of conflicts between the Greeks and Etruscans in Campania. However, finds have shown that contacts were probably maintained on both sides, with the relationship to the Etruscans apparently being more important. However, it is likely that the Pompeians were initially under Greek influence, which explains their adoption of the Greek world of gods and a Doric temple. In 525 BC the Etruscans extended their sphere of influence to Pompeii. Among other things, they took over the cult of Apollo cultivated in Pompeii. After the defeat of the Etruscans by the Cumaean and Syracuse fleets at the Battle of Cumae in 474 BC the Greeks again held supremacy over Campania. Since the late 5th century B.C. (between 425 BC and 420 BC) Pompeii was under Samnite rule. In 310 BC The city was able to fend off a plundering raid by Roman naval soldiers who were supposed to take the neighboring city of Nuceria Alfaterna. 290 BC Like all other Samnite cities, Pompeii had to join the Roman alliance system. Dating from the 2nd century B.C. Several Oscan inscriptions were found. After and especially during the 2nd century B.C. the Campanian city was doing very well economically. Many public projects such as market halls or temples could be realized. Some of the private buildings also had stately dimensions.


Roman Pompeii

Pompeii was on the side of Rome's opponents both during the Samnite Wars and during the War of the Allies. Sulla besieged the city in 89 BC, traces of artillery can still be seen today. Inscriptions in the Oscan language were also found on the walls of the houses, which were supposed to show the way to the defenders who were unfamiliar with the area. Pompeii finally fell to the Romans and was conquered in 80 BC converted into a Roman colony by Sulla. The city was now called Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. About 2,000 Roman veterans and their families were apparently settled in a larger closed area to the southwest of the city. In current research, however, it is disputed whether parts of the city or individual houses were expropriated for this purpose. It can be assumed that many of the settlers were given land outside the city and therefore did not live in the city. Latin inscriptions from this period point to a "self-romanization". What is certain is that there were initially conflicts between the newly settled Romans and the long-established upper class, which lasted for decades. By the Augustan period the ancient families seem to have regained their influence. In the style of the Roman imperial family, Augustus' intended successor in office, his nephew Marcellus, was chosen as the city's patron saint and, like Augustus, was worshiped in the city. Also in Augustan times, the glamorous small town seems to have developed into a meeting place for the Roman upper class.

Traces of siege Roman guns on the walls of Pompeii, left by the siege of Sulla



During the Roman Republic of Pompeii further expanded. The Romans led not only their soldiers, but also technology and lifestyle. Roman commander Mark Vipsanius Agrippa built the Aqua aqueduct from Augusta (present-day Naples) to the city in 20 BC, thus guaranteeing that this important shopping center along the Appian Way will not have a shortage of fresh water. The remains of the water distributor Castellum Aqua (Castellum Aquae) are still preserved at the Vesuvian Gate. From a small building there were three pipes for different types of buildings. In extreme drought, water supply could be cut by a simple turn of the crane. The first one was of course disconnected from the water supply of public baths (the least vital building), and then the water supply to private houses and businesses was blocked, and the latter were turned off to public fountains (most important for all citizens of the city) on the streets of Pompeii. The pools in Pompeii were mainly for decoration.

Many rich citizens of Rome began to settle in Pompeii and in its suburbs. Most of the great buildings that you can see here were built around that time. Unfortunately, human ingenuity could not compete with the forces of nature. Pompeii was badly damaged during the February 5, 62 earthquake. The consequences of this natural cataclysm were described in detail in the "Annals" of Tacitus. Many buildings were destroyed, others were seriously damaged. The inhabitants of Pompeii quickly restored most of the important buildings, but the traces of this earthquake are still visible. In addition, earthquake scenes were depicted on some frescoes in private houses of the inhabitants of Pompeii.

Historians believe that during the final destruction, more than 20,000 citizens lived in Pompeii, which was considered a great policy for its time.


Doom of Pompeii

The earthquake of AD 62, possibly caused by the subsidence of a clod of the hearth roof or the rupture of a crack in the subsoil, loosened the vent of the volcano. In the years that followed, its resistance was reduced more and more by the trapped rising gases and the steady increase in vapor pressure in the magma chamber. In the late summer or fall of AD 79, the internal pressure overcame the resistance of the plug, which was suddenly shattered and ejected. Immediately afterwards, huge amounts of pumice and ash were ejected in a short time. The Triassic dolomites that were also ejected from the Herddach are proof that the chimney was shot deep down. Then a jet of gas blew out the ground material from the chimney walls.

Several days earlier there had been signs of Vesuvius erupting, which is why some of the residents had already left the city. The eruption threw large amounts of ash, lava and gases into the atmosphere. This cloud was carried by the wind across the country towards Pompeii. Pumice began to rain shortly after the eruption began. Underneath the pumice dust were larger pieces that hit the ground at high speed. This pumice stone brought down countless roofs, blocking doors and trapping residents of the city.

During a brief lull, the chimney collapsed. The next eruption cleared it again, and the violence of the eruption rapidly increased. The chimney collapsed again and was cleared once more. The gas-rich magma of the depths rose in the vent, was atomized by violent explosions and in increasing succession promoted by strong ash eruptions. The climax of the eruption that was reached was probably accompanied by violent volcanic earthquakes. At the same time, a torrential eruption of rain on the western slope of the volcano turned large amounts of ash into mudflows.

The vent and the top of the magma chamber had been emptied by the ejection of enormous masses of pyroclastic material, causing the roof of the magma chamber to collapse along the fault lines. Magma from one of these fault lines surged to the surface and spilled over the swampy terrain at the north foot of Mount Somma. The collapse of the summit region created a caldera six kilometers in diameter, in which the cone of today's Vesuvius subsequently formed.

By the time Vesuvius had calmed down after its eighteen-hour eruption, most of the people in Pompeii had either suffocated or been crushed to death by falling rocks. Still, some had survived the disaster by this point. The few that were still alive fell victim to pyroclastic avalanches only a short time later. The most famous victim was the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, who, driven by an interest in science and a desire to help, drove to the scene of the disaster with his fleet (he was the prefect of the Roman fleet at Misenum). Before Stabiae he perished in the sulfur vapors. The catastrophe was witnessed by his nephew Pliny the Younger, who detailed the course of events in two surviving letters to the historian Tacitus, who had asked him for source material. The specific course of the volcanic eruption is therefore also known as the Plinian eruption.

According to the oldest copy of the letter sent by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus, the date of the sinking was August 24th. Most scientific accounts follow this up to the excavation finds in October 2018. However, the various copies of the letter show very different dates up to November 24th. Already in 1797 Carlo Maria Rosini combined from the different dates, from a statement by Cassius Dio near Xiphilinos, according to which the outbreak occurred in autumn (Phthinoporon), and the food remains found - including chestnuts, pomegranates, olives and peach stones that only ripen in autumn - that the outbreak occurred on November 23. He was followed in 1879 by Michele Ruggiero, while others preferred October 24. Inscriptions have been known for a long time, for example to olives pickled on October 16, for which, however, the year in which they were written cannot ultimately be proven. In October 2018, a graffiti written in charcoal was found. It states October 17 as the date and presumably dates from the year of the eruption because of the transience of the writing material. If so, the eruption itself is likely scheduled for October 24th or later.

For more than 1500 years, Pompeii was buried under a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stone up to 25 meters thick. In addition to Pompeii, the cities of Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis were also completely buried.


Rediscovery and modern exploration

Valuables, including several marble statues, were recovered from several buildings soon after the city fell. In the nearly 17 centuries that followed, the site of the former city was only sporadically inhabited. Over the centuries, grave robbers searched for valuable pieces in easily accessible ruins and plundered them.

In 1592 Domenico Fontana discovered inscriptions, marble tablets, coins and the like during canal construction work, but nobody was interested in them. The area was called La Civita - the city - by the locals. The start of the scientific excavations, officially dated April 6, 1748, is related to the excavations at Herculaneum begun in 1709 by Emmanuel Maurice de Lorraine, Duke of Elbeuf, which were officially commissioned by the Neapolitan royal family from 1738 and the Spanish engineer officer Colonel Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre. The spectacular finds of numerous statues and artefacts also aroused interest in further research in the previously uninteresting area of Pompeii and Stabiae. The excavations that the Neapolitan royal family also entrusted to Alcubierre in 1748 in the area of Pompeii had the main aim of recovering special exhibits and valuables. However, Alcubierre had little success in his excavations and turned back to Herculaneum in 1750. He realized that he had probably discovered a larger settlement. Believing them to be stabiae, he named the discovered theater Teatro Stabina. Excavations resumed four years later, now under the supervision of the Accademia Ercolanese, founded in 1755. The objects they were looking for were primarily statues, jewelry and precious metals, and especially wall paintings, which were detached and taken to a specially built museum in Portici.

On August 20, 1763, a stone was found with the inscription "[...] rei publicae Pompeianorum [...]". Thus the city was unequivocally identified as Pompeii. Since 1763 you could also visit the excavation area. The theater, the Temple of Isis, the Herculan Gate and the Villa of Diomedes in front of the city were among the first exhibits. The Neapolitan kings Charles VII and Ferdinand IV claimed exclusive rights to the treasures found. So visitors were forbidden to draw the ruins. Even worse for later research, both ordered the destruction of murals just so no one could get hold of them. Only when Johann Joachim Winckelmann protested publicly did the royal family stop doing so. It could not be prevented that selected pieces were given away to other European royal families. The Accademia Ercolanese published the eight-volume series Antichità di Ercolano between 1757 and 1792, the magnificent volumes of which were given away to selected recipients throughout Europe. Thanks to these books, we now know which art treasures were lost back then.

Due to the influence of Winckelmann's works and a changed awareness in bourgeois society, the confrontation with the legacies of the Romans was now a confrontation with one's own European culture. This change began after 1760. From now on, antiquity was raised to a kind of ideal. Antiquity was imagined as a collection of magnificent buildings. Since the findings in Pompeii mostly did not do justice to this idea and the needs of the royal museum were covered, interest in further excavations in Pompeii waned for the time being; the excavations progressed slowly. After Alcubierre's death in 1780, Francesco La Vega became the new excavation director. Prominent visitors to Pompeii in this early period of the excavations included Johann Wolfgang Goethe (“Much misery has happened in the world, but little that would have given posterity so much joy”) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

There was great progress in research when French troops under General Jean-Étienne Championnet occupied Naples in January 1799 and held control of Italy from 1806 to 1815. The management of the excavations was now in French hands and proceeded according to plan. First, the land on which Pompeii is located was expropriated. At times up to 700 workers were employed in the excavations. Parts of the forum were excavated, as well as the main street Via di Mercurio coming from the north and the subsequent Via del Foro leading to the forum. Thus, the already excavated areas in the north and south were connected. In the west-east direction, parts of the Via dell'Abbondanza were uncovered. The planned complete excavation of the city wall, which should enable a walk through the city, could not be realized until the French left in 1815. After all, one now had the first impression of the size and appearance of the ancient small town. In the years that followed, the excavators had to constantly struggle with a lack of money. The excavations progressed slowly, but important things were found, such as the house of the Faun, the house of Meleager, the house of the tragic poet and the house of the Dioscuri.


Giuseppe Fiorelli and the beginning of scientific exploration

With the appointment of Giuseppe Fiorelli as Soprintendente in 1863, a new era in the study of the city began. The following twelve years under his leadership were to be formative. Excavation techniques made great progress in the second half of the 19th century. The work became more and more scientific and constantly improved. For example, plaster casts of the dead were made. When the excavators discovered cavities left by the corpses in the hardened rock, they carefully filled them with plaster. After solidification, the dead could be recognized as plaster models. Their expression ranges from obvious agony to a peaceful impression of falling asleep. Over time, these methods were refined to include filling smaller cavities left by previously organic material. This could be former wooden furniture or roots. Attention was also paid to the upper floors of the buildings, and the upper floors were also partly reconstructed. Houses were now dug from above and not from the side. This led to clear scientific findings, also about the roof construction, and prevented the collapse of the walls, which had often happened up to then due to the weight of the soil inside the houses. Care was now also taken to secure and preserve the parts of the city that had already been excavated, which had previously only been poorly reconstructed or not reconstructed at all and had once again been left to decay.

The restoration became an important part of the work, especially under Fiorelli's successor Michele Ruggiero. Fiorelli also introduced methods of scientific documentation. He divided the city into the nine areas (regiones) and blocks of houses (insulae) that are still valid today and numbered the entrances to the individual houses (domus) so that each is covered by these three numbers, in addition to the one usually assigned to the house by the excavators names; e.g. B. VI 15.1 (so-called Casa dei Vettii). With the Giornale degli Scavi, Fiorelli also published the first periodical with current excavation reports. Under Fiorelli's successors, the last remains of the hitherto unexcavated areas west of the Via Stabiana were uncovered. With that, the entire west of the city was archaeologically examined.

In 1889, archaeologist Friedrich von Duhn and architect Louis Jacobi dug deeper into the city and uncovered a 6th-century BC Doric temple. Between 1907 and 1911 two necropolises from the Samnite period (5th century BC) were found outside the walls of the city. Between 1911 and 1924, Vittorio Spinazzola led the exploration of the entire Via dell'Abbondanza (also called the Bazaar Street) up to the Sarno Gate. However, Spinazzola's reconstructions of the facades of the buildings on this street are highly controversial in the academic community. In order to protect the masonry, frescoes, mosaics, inscriptions, etc., small sloping tiled roofs have been built on the walls since the end of the 19th century. However, no attention was paid to the original room heights or upper floors. Water and power lines were also relocated, in part to create fountain or light effects for visitors. The planting of laurel trees and palm trees in the courtyards of the houses at this time also did more harm than good and still poses problems for archaeologists today. Even with the walls, one can hardly distinguish between original parts and new parts of the wall. But the biggest problem is now the dilapidation of the reconstructions from that time.


Modern Archaeology: From the 1920s to the Present

In the 1920s, Amedeo Maiuri, who was head of excavations in Pompeii for almost 40 years, excavated for the first time in strata older than that of 79 AD in order to gain insights into the history of the settlement. World War II brought further destruction when Allied planes bombed Pompeii in September 1943. The areas newly excavated at the time were particularly affected. The last large-scale excavations took place under Maiuri in the 1950s, but were only insufficiently scientifically documented. After Maiuri's excavations, the area south of the Via dell'Abbondanza and the course of the city wall were almost completely uncovered. The conservation, however, was criminally neglected and poses great difficulties for today's archaeologists. This area of all things, which because of its dense development with workshops, hostels and pubs could paint an accurate picture of life in the city, seems today - not least after a questionable reconstruction in the 1980s and 1990s after the severe earthquake of March 23. November 1980, which caused great destruction in Pompeii - lifeless and sterile. The excavation of the burial ground in front of the Noceran Gate also dates back to this time. Since then, apart from smaller soundings or targeted sondages and excavations, work has been limited to the areas that have already been excavated. About two thirds of the city have now been uncovered. Further excavations on a large scale are currently not foreseeable. Today, archaeologists are trying to reconstruct, document and, above all, stop the ever-accelerating decay. Pompeii is also increasingly becoming an international research project. For example, the German Archaeological Institute has been active in Pompeii for a long time. Particularly noteworthy are the research project Houses in Pompeii led by Volker Michael Strocka or the investigations into the Casa dei Postumii (1997 to 2002) by Jens-Arne Dickmann and Felix Pirson.

The finds from Pompeii have been on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples since 1787, more recent finds can also be seen on site in the Antiquarium.


Excavation Director, Directors and Superintendent of the Pompeii Historic Site

Indented the directors responsible for Pompeii. At times, more than one person was responsible for the archaeological site of Pompeii, or the incumbents alternated as excavators and museum directors in Naples. Since 1961, the superintendents of Naples and Caserta have been responsible for Pompeii, and there are always local directors for Pompeii as well as for Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale.

1738-1780 Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre
1750-1760 Karl Weber as responsible assistant
1764/1778-1797 Francesco La Vega
1799-1804 Antoine Christophe Saliceti
1804-1814 Pietro La Vega
1807-1838 Michele Arditi
1814-1825 Antonio Bonnucci
1825-1828 Nicola d'Apuzzo
1827-1837 Carlo Bonucci
1837-1848 Pietro Bianchi
1839-1850 Francesco Maria Avellino
1849-1851 Giuseppe Settembre
1850-1863 Domenico Spinelli
1851-1852 Guglielmo Bechi
1852-1860 Gaetano Genovese
1860-1875 Giuseppe Fiorelli
1864/1875-1893 Michele Ruggiero
1893-1901 Giulio De Petra
1901-1905 Ettore Païs
1905-1910 Antonio Sogliano
1906-1910 Giulio De Petra
1911-1923 Vittorio Spinazzola
1924-1961 Amedeo Maiuri
1961-1976 Alfonso De Francisci
1977 Luigi D'Amore
1977-1981 Fausto Zevi
1981-1984 Giuseppina Cerulli Irelli
1984-1994 Baldassare Conticello
1995-2009 Pietro Giovanni Guzzo
2009-2010 Maria Rosaria Salvatore
2010-2014 Giuseppe Proietti
2014-2020: Massimo Osanna
since 2021: Gabriel Zuchtriegel