22 December 1955
Today I walked the streets of a city dead for almost 2,000 years, & descended into the crater of the volcano which destroyed it. I saw two loaves of bread left in an oven to burn when the inhabitants fled—I saw the thick, cake-batter looking lava which splashed over the mountain & ran down its sides in rivers of molten rock. I saw four of the citizens, in the exact positions they had assumed while making the transition from life to death. I stood in the amphitheater where people laughed and cried, as the wind ran its fingers through the tall poplar trees. I walked along streets with ruts worn in the stone from centuries of chariot tracks, & crossed them on the raised stepping stones that protected the people’s sandals when the streets ran with rain water & mud. I entered the villas of the rich & the hovels of the poor; the wine shops where seamen bringing goods from Egypt & Greece stopped after unloading their ships at the docks which today are almost a mile inland.
Pompeii was a favored city of the Roman Patricians; here they had homes & their mistresses. In its forums & scattered about the city lie temples to a multitude of gods, from Apollo to Isis. And next to its pharmacies were its houses of prostitution, directions to which were quite obvious but a little embarrassing.
Pompeii today is a city of roofless columns & broken walls. Little remains of its public buildings but what there are are maddeningly enticing. Some, like the public baths, are still almost exactly as they stood, complete to the frescoes on the ceiling & the marble of the floors. Such is the condition of Pompeii, & the story it tells of its one-time glory, that it seems that today’s Italy is backwards by comparison. The inside of almost every shattered wall still bears the paint put on when the building was whole. Had it not been for an earthquake in the 18th century, much more of the city could be seen as it was buried—for the ash was light—19 to 23 feet of it covered the city after the eruption. 2,000 of the 25,000 inhabitants died. One of the bodies (now covered in plaster of Paris) was found in a crouching position in a cellar; evidently he’d thought the rains of ashes would end in a few hours. All the other bodies have their hands or arms over their faces—killed probably by the poison gas accompanying the eruption. A dog, left forgotten & chained when his master fled, is also among the ones who perished.
Plumbing, an underground water system of lead pipes, indoor toilets; all were part of Pompeii.
The city is built on a slight hill, with a beautiful view in all directions. Its streets, though narrow, are fairly straight. All streets running to the Forum—a wide flat area surrounded by shops & public buildings—end just before reaching it. The streets are dug down, instead of being raised up, & near the Forum large stone blocks (about the size of tombstones) stand at the ends of the streets to prevent chariots from entering. The shops were fairly small, one-room affairs, completely cut off from the rest of the building, unless a wooden stairway ran to the second floor—though most buildings had second stories, few are left. From the streets, doorways look down passageways between buildings,--or between two of the thick walls forming the passage into quiet gardens, surrounded by columns patiently supporting the sky.
The private homes are fascinating & very attractive—all rooms face a central garden. The main disadvantage being the lack of lighting.
Pompeii was destroyed, it is said, because it was so wicked—this may be true, but it did not die in vain. Because of its destruction, we have today a section of the past which gives a more accurate account of the lives & practices of its people than any number of written accounts could possibly do.