Street of stone in Pompeii

Echoes of Pompeii: A Tale Under the Shadow of Vesuvius

The aroma of fresh bread filled the air as Gaius pulled new loaves from the oven. Although he was a slave, he ran this small bakery, built into the front of the House of the Faun. Gaius opened the door to let the aroma waft down the basalt stone street, drawing in more customers. He paid no heed to the brief earth tremor that morning, though such tremors had become more frequent lately.

Gaius was hopeful for his future. Each morning, as he passed through the great room, he would gaze down at the large mosaic of Alexander the Great. It gave him the courage to believe that he could conquer his dreams. On his weekly trek to the Temple of Apollo, he passed by advertisements for this week’s entertainment. It was funded by Marcus Venerius Secundus, a former slave, who had purchased his own freedom. He was now wealthy enough to sponsor events.

Trin walking down the stone street of Pompeii. Carts have worn down the stone leaving traces of their frequented paths.

Gaius hoped for another good week of sales. His master had been coaching him on building the business. Higher sales would help his master earn more, but it would also help his savings, and he had big plans.

A barefoot boy wandered in with a coin depicting a warrior.

“Uncle Julius said his well dried up yesterday,” said the boy.

Gaius pondered this development as he took the coin and handed the boy a loaf of bread to take to his uncle. Julius would need to find another source of water for his cattle, which seemed a bit skittish lately.

Last week, two other wells dried up. He was mystified, as these wells had been good for years, giving water even in the hottest, driest summers of the past. But his thoughts quickly moved on, watching with amusement as the boy skipped down the cobblestones with bread in hand. At the end of the street, the boy carved graffiti on the wall—a message to his friends.

It was a hot August day, but business had been good. Gaius began closing up shop just before noon. He planned to rest for the afternoon during the hottest part of the day. As he pulled the door shut, a loud noise drew his attention away from the shop. Something smashed down on the street near him, then another. All at once, a cacophony of sounds surrounded him, screams, clay tiles crashing onto the street, running feet, and cries. Ash and rocks were pummeling the city all around.

His first thought was, this must be the wrath of the gods.

His mind raced, and thoughts fragmented into the surrounding chaos. Unable to calm the storm of panic that overwhelmed him, he screamed and then ran inside, slamming the door. He sprinted to the back of the house and hid in the latrine, peering out of the tiny window. Dread washed over him as he watched nearby houses begin to crumble.

Stones and pillars from the center of Pompeii

The second wave from Mount Vesuvius encased the remains of Pompeii and all who were left in a dark cloud of ash and hot gases. Gaius, his master, the boy, and all the other inhabitants of Pompeii were encased where they stood. The hot gas and ash that had just erupted from Vesuvius suffocated them all.

Riches could not save the wealthy, death equalized them all.

Nineteen miles away, Pliny watched a great ominous cloud rise like an umbrella pine. Darkness descended around him, blocking all light from the sun. He and his mother escaped while ash rained down on them.

The town was soon buried under powdery volcanic ash. Its last day lay preserved for over a millennium.

Preserved form of a child buried in Pompeii
Preserved form of a child buried in Pompeii

Secrets of Pompeii

Volcanic ash preserved Pompeii in time, making it one of the most significant archaeological sites for studying daily life in 79 AD. While the story above is fictional, elements of life in Pompeii are undeniably intriguing. It wasn’t until 1748 that Pompeii began to be properly excavated, letting it reveal secrets of its past.

Pliny the Younger (61–112 AD) witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius from across the bay while his uncle attempted a rescue. Sadly, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died in the effort. In two detailed letters, Pliny the Younger described the catastrophic event. His insights helped scientists understand the eruption and the deadly pyroclastic surges, which reached temperatures of 180–220 °C (360–430 °F). These hot blasts spewed down the mountain at incredible speeds, killing all who remained in Pompeii and the nearby town of Herculaneum.

The House of the Faun was a luxurious aristocratic residence. It is named after a satirical bronze statue of Faun, the mythological half-human and half-goat creature, that was unearthed there.

The statue of Faun standing on a mosaic floor in the House of Faun Pompeii
The satirical statue of Faun, the lower half is of a man rather than a goat. It stands in the House of Faun, Pompeii.

A slave who earned his freedom

In 2021, the remains of Marcus Venerius Secundus were found in a large tomb. Inscriptions reveal that he was a former slave who purchased his freedom. Later, Marcus became a playwright and a prominent public figure in Pompeii.

Small shops on the fronts of aristocratic homes allowed slaves to engage in entrepreneurship, often under the guidance of their owners. This arrangement was mutually beneficial. While the aristocrats retained much of the profits, slaves could also earn some money from their work. The education and coaching provided by the owners might not have been attainable otherwise.

Graffiti on the walls, often political, also depicted the lives of commoners. It seems that even the poor were literate enough to read and write. Graffiti found in latrines carried messages about notable individuals who had “done business” there. Human behavior hasn’t changed much over the millennia.

Apollo the Archer stands in the temple to Apollo
This replica of Apollo the Archer stands in the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii. The temple contains decorations dating back to 575 B.C. The Naples Museum houses the original statue to help preserve it.

Luxury or Debauchery

While it sounds promising that some slaves could earn their freedom, the reality was that slaves were still treated as property. They could be compelled to work in brothels or kept in appalling conditions. An excavated bakery in Pompeii, for instance, reveals the harsh conditions endured by slaves. The bakery, with only one exit, was used to confine and exploit the slaves. Each day, they were compelled to grind and bake bread in a hot, windowless room.

In the heart of Pompeian life were the temples dedicated to Venus, Jupiter, Apollo, and other deities. These temples served as centers for rituals and community gatherings.

The ruins of Pompeii are scattered with frescoes that depict sexual scenes and erotic art. The British Museum, which holds many treasures unearthed in Pompeii, displays a statue of Pan copulating with a goat that was found in one of the aristocratic homes. Oversized phallic symbols, two meters long, were erected on the corner of a building and depicted in art. In 1819, King Francis I of Naples ordered artifacts to be secured away, accessible only to mature adults.

The walls of Pompeii’s brothel are covered with erotic imagery.

A single stone bed in the small room of the brothel in Pompeii
A room in the brothel of Pompeii. Often a place of abuse and sanctioned rape for slaves compelled to work there.

Carbonized Bread

The sudden destruction and burial of Pompeii preserved paintings on the walls, mosaics on the floors, and even loaves of bread marked with details of whom each was for. In Pompeii, many families would make their own dough but take it to a local kitchen for baking. They stamped their family emblem into the bread, which remained visible after baking, ensuring they received their own loaf back.

A stamped loaf of bread
Stamped Bread from Pompeii (Kakish, Randa. (2014). Ancient bread stamps from Jordan. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry. 14. 19-31) Displayed in the museum of Naples.
Temple square in Pompeii with free standing pillars
Temple in the center of Pompeii
A garden in Pompeii surrounded by pillars and painted walls
Aristocratic Garden in Pompeii
Trin standing in a bathhouse, a large basin stands at the front, faint images from frescoes still remain.
Bath House in Pompeii

Preserving the Past

When the town was buried, bodies were encased where they fell. The surrounding ash hardened into a porous shell and all the organic matter inside decayed. This left hollow spaces in the volcanic tuff. In 1846, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli devised a method to preserve these forms. He filled the hollow spaces with plaster and allowed it to dry for days. The surrounding hardened tuff was then chipped away, revealing the final poses of Pompeii’s inhabitants.

The exact date of the eruption in 79 AD has been a topic of debate. Many sources, including letters from Pliny the Younger, cite August 24th as the fateful day of Pompeii. However, records found in Pompeii suggest that construction on a certain home took place in October of that year. Some have since proposed a new date of October 24th. It is possible that the original date in the letters from Pliny the Younger was mistranslated at some point.

Fresco in Pompeii with red borders and yellow walls. Each wall has a painting in its center depicting life in the Roman Empire.
Unearthed fresco in a Pompeii home.


Sixteen kilometers away from Pompeii, the town of Herculaneum was also buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It did not suffer the initial destruction that damaged many homes in Pompeii. Instead, a scorching blast, hundreds of degrees in temperature, swept through the town. The pyroclastic surge instantly killed the inhabitants and then buried the city under more than 80 feet (about 25 meters) of ash.

In Pompeii, archaeologists found 3D outlines of the deceased, formed in the ash. In contrast, in Herculaneum, the skeletal remains of over 300 individuals were discovered in boat houses near the water. These people were attempting to escape when they were overwhelmed by the intense heat. Their bones did not burn, they were cooked.

A large stone oven and bakery in Pompeii
Bakery in Pompeii

Will Vesuvius Erupt again?

The Romans did not know what lay beneath Pompeii and Herculaneum. Around 1995 BC, almost 2,000 years before Pompeii was destroyed, Mount Vesuvius had devastated previous settlements. Archaeologists have unearthed huts, pots, pans, and livestock belonging to Bronze Age settlements. These were all buried beneath layers of much older volcanic rock. The streets of Pompeii were paved with this older volcanic rock, and many of the homes were built from this basalt.

There have been numerous eruptions since 79 AD, but none quite as devastating. Although it has been 2,000 years since the catastrophic eruption that buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other settlements around it, this does not imply that the area is under impending doom. Volcanoes do not erupt according to predictable patterns. Additionally, modern technology allows us to monitor seismic activity and other volcanic indicators, which can provide some warning to residents—at least we hope.

If the Romans had understood the warning signs of the wells drying up and the increased frequency of tremors, they may have been able to safely evacuate the cities.

The garden of the home on REG-VII-INS-II street. A fern stands in the center of pillars on a green lawn.
The home on REG-VII-INS-II street.

Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum

Trin and I spent an entire day exploring the ruins of Pompeii. Along Dusty Roads, a travel blog with extensive travel advice, recommends learning as much as possible about Pompeii before visiting to fully appreciate the experience. They were exactly right.

If you’re planning a visit, consider checking out the pre-visit learning resources and ticket information recommended by Along Dusty Roads (note: this is not an affiliate link – they simply provide excellent travel advice).

There is so much to absorb. As we walked the streets, we tried to imagine life in ancient times. On REG-VII-INS-II street, Trin and I entered a house, wandered through, and found ourselves in the garden. “This is where I would live,” Trin remarked. I felt the same way. It reminded us of the time we were house hunting in North Carolina. When we saw the final house, we both knew instantly—it felt just like home. The sense of this place being a home was incredibly vivid. Yet how can any of us know what life was really like on these streets over 2,000 years ago?

Trin walking down a cobblestone alley of Pompeii
Find your blue door.

6 thoughts on “Echoes of Pompeii: A Tale Under the Shadow of Vesuvius”

    1. It is a long way from Australia, but so is Zanzibar! It really does “make your toenails tickle with anticipation of the exotic unknown” I look forward to hearing about your trip there in 2025!

    1. You are right there is so much to learn from the digs. I also enjoy seeing them because it makes it all seem so real. After all the Roman ruins we have seen it makes it feel like the Roman Empire was not that long ago.

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