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Digging Deeper into Pompeii’s Past

New research is uncovering the ancient city’s dynamic story from its origins to the eruption that buried it

By BENJAMIN LEONARD and JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pompeii Intro Regio V HouseThe emperor Nero is thought to have visited the southern Italian city of Pompeii in A.D. 64, perhaps spending a few nights in the enormous villa his wife, Poppaea, owned in the nearby town of Oplontis. Nero would have seen a city struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake two years earlier. “Pompeii was a city in crisis and flux,” says archaeologist Stephen Kay of the British School at Rome. The Pompeians labored to fix damaged roads, repaint walls whose frescoes had been ruined, rebuild their homes, revitalize the city’s infrastructure, repair its cemeteries, and construct what they were confident would be a new, earthquake-proof temple to their patron goddess, Venus.

 

Pompeii Intro MapThe Pompeians may not have known it, but the A.D. 62 earthquake had been a warning that the volcano looming over their city was waking up after 700 years of dormancy. In A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted in one of the largest and deadliest volcanic events in history. A dense, high-speed rush of solidified lava called lapilli, volcanic ash, and super-heated gases rushed down Vesuvius’ slopes and buried Pompeii and much of the rest of the region southeast of the mountain in as much as 20 feet of volcanic debris.

 

There is a tendency to think that Pompeii had always been just as it was in A.D. 79. However, by the first century A.D., it had already undergone as much as 1,000 years of change. “It’s difficult to say who the original Pompeians were,” says archaeologist Marcello Mogetta of the University of Missouri. “But if you dig below the A.D. 79 levels—which is a real challenge because you can’t destroy mosaic floors and knock down frescoed walls—you start to see that Pompeii is a site with a very long history.”

 

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