Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 8, 2021

© Pavel Ilyukhin /

Pompeii is the largest archeological site in the world and one of few well-preserved ancient cities.

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The vanished world

Frozen in time 2000 years ago by a volcanic eruption, Pompeii offers a window into Roman-era life

It was the kind of spring day the Italian countryside loves to offer: warm and clear, filled with sunshine, songbirds and early wildflowers. I stood high above the Mediterranean on a peak I had climbed, its summit of rubble and melted rock smelling of the sea that stretched to the horizon. Beneath me, the coastline shimmered like a map brought to life: I could see the city of Naples sprawling inland from the bay that bears its name and, further south, the rugged Sorrentine Peninsula, gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Closer at hand, clutches of diorama-sized suburbs and villages nestled between vineyards and fields. Everywhere, the terrain was broken up by lumpy outcroppings of stone that looked oddly superimposed on the landscape, as if strewn there by some ancient god.

I turned to take in the view behind me. The summit I’d reached was actually the rim of an enormous volcano, the formidable Mount Vesuvius, which last erupted in 1944 and remains a threat to the three million-plus Italians who live near its massive cone today. A desolate, lunar-like setting of hissing steam vents and cooled magma, Vesuvius boasts a crater more than a kilometre wide and 200 metres deep, the result of at least 36 eruptions over the past 2000 years.

The volcano is also responsible for one of history’s most famous disasters, the complete burial of the nearby Roman centres of Pompeii and Herculaneum by a flood of boiling mud and debris in the terrible eruption of 79 CE. Now a celebrated window on a vanished ancient world, Pompeii’s excavated ruins are easily visible eight kilometres from the volcano’s rim; they continue to testify to the power of Jupiter, the patron god of Vesuvius, napping deep in the crater below me.

The Petrified City

Easily reached from Naples 20 minutes north, or the cliffside villages of the Amalfi Coast 45 minutes south, Roman-era Pompeii (Piazza Esedra, Pompeii Scavi;; entrance €11) lies beside the contemporary centre of Pompei (spelled with one “i”). The modern city is a Catholic pilgrimage centre (people come here from all over Italy to have their cars blessed), and the town bustles year-round with tourists seeking religious miracles or ancient mysteries.

The four-square-kilometre area of Roman Pompeii, announced by signs reading “Pompeii Scavi” (scavi means “excavation” in Italian), is the world’s largest archeological site and a time capsule of antiquity. Under near-constant excavation since its rediscovery in 1748 mummified beneath metres of compressed pumice, mud and ash, Pompeii is one of few places where an ancient city has been preserved in detail — everything from utensils and furniture to paintings and petrified people are on display in their original settings.

Almost 20 square blocks of surprisingly intact buildings are currently open to the public, a significant area that takes a minimum of three hours to see, even though it is only a small part of the total excavation. Thirty years ago, the interiors of dozens of onsite buildings were open to the public. Today, no more than 10 are open at any one time because of damage or danger.

Periodic collapses of walls and famous structures, as well as damage by generations of looters, have brought denunciations from UNESCO, and the announcement in May 2012 of an injection of $145 million for emergency maintenance by the European Union, to be matched by Italy’s government at a future date.

Touring the ruins

Visitors are invariably seduced by the chance to step back in time, gazing at grand civic buildings and private homes adorned with vivid and often risqué frescoes. A thriving commercial centre before the tragic events of August 24, 79 CE, Pompeii is filled with the remains of shops, restaurants, inns, bakeries, drinking establishments, public baths and brothels (these last helpfully pointed out by stone street signs in the shape of phalluses). Some of the main sights today include the Forum, a vast central square and civic hub; the main street of Via dell’ Abbondanza, lined with hotels and homes; and the very well-preserved amphitheatre, built to seat 20,000 spectators eager to watch gladiators battle.

The best-preserved private residence is the House of the Vetti, once the home of wealthy merchant brothers. Step into its atrium for a glimpse of the typical layout of a Roman mansion. Richly frescoed rooms surround a central courtyard with a pool and formal garden.

A visit to the famous Villa of the Mysteries is also de rigueur, but requires a 20-minute walk outside the city walls. It once housed a female religious cult honouring Bacchus, the god of festivity, and features some of the finest Roman frescoes in existence, along with amusing ancient graffiti.

Back at Pompeii’s central square, the large Forum Granary is now a museum filled with period artifacts and implements, including kitchen tools for cooking dormice (yes, mice), a favourite Roman delicacy. The nearby Garden of the Fugitives is the place to see morbid effigies of the town’s cowering citizens as they were overcome by Mount Vesuvius’ molten debris.

When the victims’ encased bodies decomposed, they left hollow spaces which have since been filled with plaster by archeologists, making chillingly realistic moulds of people in their last moments of life. The desperate statuary, some of them children and pets, is not for the faint of heart.

Pompeii can be crowded, but it’s easy to slip onto a deserted side street to avoid the congestion. Most of the excavation can only be seen on foot and walking is sometimes uncomfortable because of rutted cobblestone roads and high, uneven sidewalks. There are very few modern toilets onsite (there is one outside the main entrance), and a supply of bottled water is always a must, along with a sun hat. The lack of shade is an important consideration from May to August, when temperatures soar to 40°C.

Three kilometres north of the excavations, the Antiquarium (15 Via Settetermini, Boscoreale; is a Roman villa turned into a museum documenting daily life, technology and the arts in the Roman era. On the grounds of the estate is a farmstead featuring a vineyard of varietals once cultivated by the Romans.

Seaside remains

Twenty-five minutes by car or rail from Pompeii, the Roman fishing port of Herculaneum (Corso Resina, Ercolano;; entrance €11) shared the same fate as its sister city, but is smaller and less visited. Now surrounded by solid lava, Herculaneum makes plain the magnitude and speed of the final phase of the eruption, when discharges of superheated mud and magma took four minutes to flow nine kilometres from Mount Vesuvius to the Mediterranean. Accumulating to depths of 20 metres, the flow buried the town so rapidly that even the roofs of most buildings were preserved. A short stroll down to the seashore reveals a line of Roman mansions still looking as if they expect their owners to return momentarily.

Today, the site is surrounded by modern-day Ercolano. Just uphill from the excavations is the Museo Archeologico Virtuale (44 Via IV Novembre, Ercolano;; entrance €11), an enjoyable interactive museum recreating life before the eruption. Its hands-on attractions show off ingenious examples of virtual technology that allow you to brush ash from a fresco, reconstruct a temple with a wave of a hand, or join the dinner table of a holographic Roman family. Naturally, there’s a virtual brothel, as well.

In the shadow of Vesuvius

In the years before Pompeii and Herculaneum were obliterated, Vesuvius was a very different and more placid volcano. Quiet since prehistory, it was thickly vegetated and at least 2000 metres higher before basically exploding during the Pompeii event. Roman records show few locals at the time ever realized they were living so close to such a calamitous hazard until it was much too late.

Area residents today — about 700,000 inhabiting the villages around the volcano’s lower slopes, and up to 3.5 million living in the vicinity— are as seemingly unconcerned as their ancient counterparts, even though scientists warn that Vesuvius may erupt again as soon as 20 years from now. In the meantime, the fertile volcanic soils of its lower slopes produce fine wines and produce, while new vegetation encroach on the lava fields, giving the volcano’s a deceptively benign appearance.

The top third of Vesuvius’s cone and its entire crater are now a national park (Via Vesuvio, San Sebastiano al Vesuvio;; entrance $9), although the eastern flank and crater floor remain out of bounds for safety reasons. The park authority has begun to create footpaths — the best goes from the village of San Sebastiano to a volcanic observatory and the neighbouring Museo Vulcanologico (14 Contrada Osservatorio, San Sebastiano al Vesuvio;; entrance free) high on the western flank — but most visitors drive or use taxis and minibuses to reach a car park 280 metres below the summit.

From there, it’s a half-hour hike up to the volcano’s rim on a well-kept trail: a quick visit can be accomplished in three hours. Try to avoid weather that seems cool or windy at sea level, a sure sign conditions on the exposed rim will be harsh.

The best time to visit Vesuvius is undoubtedly in spring and early summer, when the slopes are carpeted with flowers and flitting nightingales mark territories with nonstop song. It’s extremely peaceful and a welcome reminder that, for the moment, Jupiter remains asleep.

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Showing 2 comments

  1. On March 18, 2013, tom said:
    if you ever go to Italy this is one of the best history sites there is in that it takes you back to Roman times. The reality of the people left petrified is amazing.
  2. On March 20, 2013, Pippa said:
    I visited Pompeii 46 years ago as an elementary school child, and still remember it, especially the raised stones with gaps wide enough for chariot wheels to fit through that formed a raised path over the muddy streets, the mosaics, and a preserved body of a child curled up with it's mother - she was trying in vain to protect it. We could wander all over the place then!

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