One Day in Pompeii

A sculpture of Fortuna unearthed at Pompeii(Photo: Boyce Lancaster)
A sculpture of Fortuna unearthed at Pompeii(Photo: Boyce Lancaster)

Most of us are at least passingly familiar with the story of the city of Pompeii.  When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii was burned and buried in ash, while nearby Herculaneum was destroyed by the pyroclastic flow.  Mostly we know the images of the last moments for the citizens of Pompeii, plaster of paris castings made from the ash which buried the city, locking it’s doomed residents in time.

 Funerary sculpture from outside of Pompeii.

On a recent tour of the exhibit One Day in Pompeii at the Cincinnati Museum Center, I was amazed by what I saw.  Their lifestyle was not unlike our own.  Yes, we have i-Pods, i-This and i-That, but it’s simply a different way of accomplishing the same thing…convenience and entertainment.

 Mosaic found in a courtyard in Pompeii.

Pompeiians loved their art, as you can imagine, with a healthy dose of Greek influence.

Mosaic murals were everywhere. Some small, others covering entire walls both inside and outside their homes.

Furnishings were spare, utilitarian, and stylish.  (Must have been an Ikea nearby)

As you would expect, sculptures were everywhere, mostly bronze and marble.

 Funerary sculpture from outside of Pompeii.

Something that was both amazing and a bit off-putting was the juxtaposition of beauty and barbarism.  There was a theatre where large plays and performances were mounted, alongside the Odeum, which allowed for more intimate musical performances, plays, and poetry readings.

Not far from that, however, was Pompeii’s  arena…the oldest surviving amphitheatre in the Roman world.  (See video of the tunnels through which the gladiators would have entered here)

There, gladiators did bloody battle with wild animals and each other.

Graffiti on one wall (no, we didn’t invent that) describes one of the gladiators, Celadus, as the ‘hero’ and ‘heartthrob of the girls’.  Pompeii had, in essence, its own Arena District, with taverns and eateries to provide refreshment before and after games and performances.   There were signs painted on the arena walls marking out rented spaces, which indicates that temporary booths were set up just outside the arena walls, selling souvenirs, food and drink.

Pompeiians also loved their carry out.  Yes, restaurants abounded where you could eat in, mingle and eat “finger food,” or take your food home or elsewhere to dine. Most Pompeiians live in homes that were quite small, leaving little room for a kitchen. They also loved grilling in a  way more similar to ours than you’d think, using portable earthenware grills designed for indirect cooking.

Women’s colors and hairstyles went in and out of style… makeup was popular, as was jewelry made of gold or pearls.

 Funerary sculpture from outside of Pompeii.

So it isn’t hard to imagine a day with folks getting dressed in their best clothing and jewelry, the ladies donning makeup, their finest jewelry, fixing their hair, and preparing to head to the theatre to hear music or see a play or other performance. Then afterwards, they might head out for a snack, or maybe they stopped to eat beforehand.

We marveled at all of this…the sophistication, the art and culture, the innovation…all the while knowing that, in the last room, it would all disappear in one, tragic day.

Below, Rick Steves gives an idea of what life was like in the port city of Pompeii.