The Neverending Story of Pompeii
With an estimated 62.1m visitors per year, Italy ranks as the third most popular tourist destination in Europe. Fittingly, Rome is also the third most-visited city on the continent. Still, there’s plenty outside of the capital to discover. Italy is uniquely placed among its neighbors for its history, which extends thousands of years back from the modern day to the beginnings of the Roman Empire.
The city of Pompeii is where all this history reaches the surface.
An Unfortunate Reality
Pompeii, the city known for its fatal disagreement with a volcano in 79AD, has always been a bit of an enigma. Part tourist magnet, part archaeological site, the ancient Roman settlement is notorious for its plaster casts of people who died beneath darkness “like the black of closed and unlighted rooms”, to quote Pliny the Younger, when Vesuvius’ pyroclastic cloud fell upon Pompeii.
Of course, today, most people will be familiar with Pompeii’s demise through pop culture. The Kit Harrington-starring film Pompeii (2014) added a romantic subplot to the city’s demise, while the online casino game Up Pompay connects history with the rather more modern pastime of gaming. This 6×4 slot features two special modes dedicated to Pompeii’s nemesis Vesuvius.
Then, there’s the raft of books that have immortalized Pompeii in print, including Robert Harris’ fictionalized account from 2003. All this serves to give the site a mystique that detracts from an unfortunate reality, namely, that Pompeii is falling apart. CNN reports that a barracks on the site collapsed in 2010, while (criminal) efforts to loot the city have resulted in tunnels being dug under and through the ruins.
It’s an old story, really, the idea that attention from the public can also cause significant damage, even as it brings in money for preservation. In the USA, for instance, researchers from the University of Washington were lamenting the fact that national parks were being raided as far back as 1993. The financial cost to repair trails and visitor facilities was estimated at more than $100m.
For travelers, Pompeii represents a unique opportunity. Far from being a static reminder of something long past, the city is still vibrant with new discoveries, largely due to the fact that the 66-hectare site is only partially excavated, with a good 22 hectares still lost beneath the ground. In 2017, the year that David Gilmour released his Live at Pompeii album, archaeologists dug up a cemetery at the Porta Nola gate.
While that might conjure up some strange images, of digging up the dead beneath the (fresher) dead, burials are one of the best ways for excavators to see the more mundane aspects of life, such as class structures. Just as actor Nicolas Cage has reportedly bought himself a pyramid to be buried in, ancient Roman people were divided by wealth too, meaning that some people only got a pauper’s funeral.
As for Pompeii’s future, things are looking brighter for the tragic city. Italian rail will open a new direct route to Pompeii from Rome in 2024, dramatically reducing journey times from the current two hours. Given Pompeii’s importance to Italy’s tourism industry, as well as to Roman history, it seems remarkable that the site has remained at arm’s length from the capital for such a long time.
The beauty of Pompeii is that its story never seems to end – somewhat ironically, given that it was buried in ash almost two thousand years ago. Like all ancient remains, though, it’s still a fragile, crumbling thing.