Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Pompeii, Italian Pompeii, preserved ancient Roman city in Campania, Italy, 14 miles (23 km) southeast of Naples, at the southeastern base of Mount Vesuvius. Around noon on August 24, 79 CE, a huge eruption from Mount Vesuvius showered volcanic debris over the city of Pompeii, followed the next day by clouds of blisteringly hot gases. Buildings were destroyed, the population was crushed or asphyxiated, and the city was buried beneath a blanket of ash and pumice. For many centuries Pompeii slept beneath its pall of ash, which perfectly preserved the remains. When these were finally unearthed, in the 1700s, the world was astonished at the discovery of a sophisticated Greco-Roman city frozen in time. Grand public buildings included an impressive forum and an amphitheatre; lavish villas and all kinds of houses, dating back to the 4th century BCE, were also uncovered. Inside were some preserved remains of people sheltering from the eruption; others lay buried as they fled; bakeries were found with loaves still in the ovens. The buildings and their contents revealed day-to-day life in the ancient world—and stirred 18th-century interest in all things classical.
Pompeii was built on a spur formed by a prehistoric lava flow to the north of the mouth of the Sarnus (modern Sarno) River. Herculaneum, Stabiae, Torre Annunziata, and other communities were destroyed along with Pompeii. Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Pompeii supported between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants at the time of its destruction. The modern town (comune) of Pompei lies to the east and contains the Basilica of Santa Maria del Rosario, a pilgrimage centre.
It seems certain that Pompeii, Herculaneum, and nearby towns were first settled by Oscan-speaking descendants of the Neolithic inhabitants of Campania. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Oscan village of Pompeii, strategically located near the mouth of the Sarnus River, soon came under the influence of the cultured Greeks who had settled across the bay in the 8th century BCE. Greek influence was challenged, however, when the Etruscans came into Campania in the 7th century. The Etruscans’ influence remained strong until their sea power was destroyed by King Hieron I of Syracuse in a naval battle off Cumae in 474 BCE. A second period of Greek hegemony followed. Then, toward the end of the 5th century, the warlike Samnites, an Italic tribe, conquered Campania, and Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae became Samnite towns.
Pompeii is first mentioned in history in 310 BCE, when, during the Second Samnite War, a Roman fleet landed at the Sarnus port of Pompeii and from there made an unsuccessful attack on the neighbouring city of Nuceria. At the end of the Samnite wars, Campania became a part of the Roman confederation, and the cities became “allies” of Rome. But they were not completely subjugated and Romanized until the time of the Social War. Pompeii joined the Italians in their revolt against Rome in this war and was besieged by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 89 BCE. After the war, Pompeii, along with the rest of Italy south of the Po River, received Roman citizenship. However, as a punishment for Pompeii’s part in the war, a colony of Roman veterans was established there under Publius Sulla, the nephew of the Roman general. Latin replaced Oscan as the official language, and the city soon became Romanized in institutions, architecture, and culture.
A riot in the amphitheatre at Pompeii between the Pompeians and the Nucerians, in 59 CE, is reported by the Roman historian Tacitus. An earthquake in 62 CE did great damage in both Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cities had not yet recovered from this catastrophe when final destruction overcame them 17 years later.
Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 CE. A vivid eyewitness report is preserved in two letters written by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus, who had inquired about the death of Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum. Pliny the Elder had rushed from Misenum to help the stricken population and to get a close view of the volcanic phenomena, and he died at Stabiae. Site excavations and volcanological studies, notably in the late 20th century, have brought out further details. Just after midday on August 24, fragments of ash, pumice, and other volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii, quickly covering the city to a depth of more than 9 feet (3 metres) and causing the roofs of many houses to fall in. Surges of pyroclastic material and heated gas, known as nuées ardentes, reached the city walls on the morning of August 25 and soon asphyxiated those residents who had not been killed by falling debris. Additional pyroclastic flows and rains of ash followed, adding at least another 9 feet of debris and preserving in a pall of ash the bodies of the inhabitants who perished while taking shelter in their houses or trying to escape toward the coast or by the roads leading to Stabiae or Nuceria. Thus Pompeii remains buried under a layer of pumice stones and ash 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 metres) deep. The city’s sudden burial served to protect it for the next 17 centuries from vandalism, looting, and the destructive effects of climate and weather.