Sorting Out Pompeii

Reports on the crumbling state of the Campanian excavation site of Pompeii – incidentally a UNESCO heritage site as well– come up every few months: they tend to point out that, following a period of bad weather, some structure collapsed (or was badly damaged), and then typically proceed to decry decades of (alleged and / or proven) mismanagement of this heritage site. This, topically, must be accompanied by pointing at the incompetence of the Italian authorities – as if that indication of nationality in and by itself would go to prove that Pompeii’s fate is already sealed … again.

Damaged tomb wall in PompeiiMost recently, following a spell of bad weather, among other things, a wall collapsed that belonged to an enclosure of a tomb at Pompeii’s Porta Noceraimages so impressive, that swift action was called, following the inevitable display of quasi-avuncular chauvinism towards the Italian authorities (because clearly everyone else is capable of maintaining their heritage sites, historical structures, and housing in general without fail).

I am not in a position to judge anyone’s shortcomings, forms of corruption, or mismanagement. Chances are that, wherever people are involved, human error, poor judgement, and questionable behaviour becomes a factor – inevitably so: this is not an excuse, but a general observation.

But is that really the only aspect that one should look into? Would it be worthwhile to ask, for example, if modern restorations of the ancient structures are more prone to collapses than the original buildings? Or whether it is in fact the impact of natural events (such as extended period of rain) that is to blame for the collapses rather than alleged or actual mismanagement, pure and simple?

Having studied Pompeii in general and its epigraphy for a long time now, I feel obliged to say: while the eruption of Vesuvius encapsulated and ended life in Pompeii in a way that gives us the impression of a place where time stands still, the very same city, following its excavation, has been brought back to life – yet, not life as we know it: Pompeii, in its exposed, ruinous, uninhabited state has become somewhat of a zombie (rather than a carcass left to rot).

Yet, what we encounter today in terms of a crumbling Pompeii, is nothing that was altogether alien to Pompeii in the ancient world, except that Pompeii now lacks its inhabitants – the people who would take care of their own affairs and look after their property.

Or as an ancient inscription has it, thought to have been designed to advertise the refurbishment and hiring out of an inn called ‘The Elephant’ (CIL IV 806 – to accompany a shop-sign that displayed an elephant):

Sittius res-

Sittius took care of the refurbishment of The Elephant.

Pompeii has not (significantly) shifted away from its original location, and it is still subject to the environmental influences similar to those that it experienced just under 2,000 years ago: why would it require less of an effort to maintain it now than it did back then? In fact, due to its ruinous state, Pompeii now may well require even more of an effort than ever before, as structures that originally rested under protective roofs are exposed to inclemencies of weather in a way that they were not ever meant to be.

In A. D. 62, seventeen years before its destruction, Pompeii was hit by an earthquake of extraordinary dimensions (if we are to trust the ancient sources) – an earthquake depicted on a relief discovered in the house of the notorious Lucius Caecilius Iucundus  at Pompeii (or so one would hope, taking a favourable view on the sculptor’s abilities):


Relief from the House of Caecilius Iucundus. – Source:

Ancient sources report an astonishing level of destruction caused by this incident. Tacitus, for example (Tac. Ann. 15.22), writes that –

Isdem consulibus gymnasium ictu fulminibus conflagravit, effigies in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta. et motu terrae celebre Campaniae oppidum Pompei magna ex parte proruit; (…).

Under the same consuls, a gymnasium was struck by lightning and burned down; the statue of Nero in it was molten into an amorphous mass. Also, due to an earthquake, the busy Campanian town of Pompeii largely collapsed; (…).

The Younger Seneca, in his Naturales Quaestiones (6.1.2–3), goes into more detail:

Nonis Februariis hic fuit motus Regulo et Verginio consulibus, qui Campaniam, numquam securam huius mali, indemnem tamen et totiens defunctam metu, magna strage uastauit: nam et Herculanensis oppidi pars ruit dubieque stant etiam quae relicta sunt, et Nucerinorum colonia ut sine clade ita non sine querela est; Neapolis quoque priuatim multa, publice nihil amisit leuiter ingenti malo perstricta: uillae uero prorutae, passim sine iniuria tremuere. Adiciuntur his illa: sexcentarum ouium gregem exanimatum et diuisas statuas, motae post hoc mentis aliquos atque impotentes sui errasse.

On the Nonae of February, there was that earthquake, under the consulship of Regulus and Verginius, an earthquake that destroyed Campania with brutal force, a landscape that was never untroubled by this sort of evil, yet largely undamaged and altogether free of fear: A large part of the town of Herculaneum fell, however, and shaky stand what is left in the colony of Nuceria, so that devastation and complaint prevail in equal measure; Naples, too, lost a lot in terms of private property, but nothing in terms of public buildings, hit lightly by this massive disaster: villas, however, collapsed, and there was a widespread tremor overall, if without causing damage. In addition to that, a flock of 600 sheep was killed and statues were smashed to pieces, and some people, traumatised by the events started to wander about, unable to re-gain control over themselves.

The ancient sources, too, tell us about central government support for the cities hit by this disaster – not altogether different from current responses at all. Suetonius, for example, in his Life of Titus (8.3) writes that –

Quaedam sub eo fortuita ac tristia acciderunt, ut conflagratio Vesevi montis in Campania, et incendium Romae per triduum totidemque noctes, item pestilentia quanta non temere alias. In iis tot adversis ac talibus non modo principis sollicitudinem sed et parentis affectum unicum praestitit, nunc consolando per edicta, nunc opitulando quatenus suppeteret facultas.

Some random and sad things happened under his rule, such as the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Campania and the fire of Rome (for three days and just as many nights), also a plague that does not compare lightly with others. In those many and significant catastrophes, he did not only show the concern of an Emperor, but the unique care and compassion of a parent, offering consolation through his public statements just as much as he offered financial relief to whatever extent he could provide.

In addition to that, Rome’s emperor Vespasian sent officials to Pompeii, to sort out illegal landgrabs at Pompeii – an event recorded on a number of stones that mention the efforts of one Titus Suedius Clemens in particular, e.g. in CIL X 1018:

Ex auctoritate |Imp(eratoris) Caesaris | Vespasiani Aug(usti) | loca publica a privatis | possessa T(itus) Suedius Clemens | tribunus causis cognitis et | mensuris factis rei | publicae Pompeianorum | restituit.

By the authority of Imperator Caesar Vespasian Augustus, Titus Suedius Clemens, tribune, had the public land that was taken into possession by private people, restored to the City of Pompeii, following an investigation of the matter as well as a surveying process.

In addition to public support, the Pompeians appear to have embraced private initiative – whether in their ‘getting on with things’ (as documented in the extensive repair work that can be seen in the post-earthquake period, unfinished still by the time of Pompeii’s destruction by Mt. Vesuvius in A. D. 79) or as part of attention-grabbing euergetism, as displayed in a famous inscription at the restored Temple of Isis (CIL X 846):

N(umerius) Popidius N(umeri) f(ilius) Celsinus
aedem Isidis terrae motu conlapsam
a fundamento p(ecunia) s(ua) restituit. hunc decuriones ob liberalitatem
cum esset annorum sexs ordini suo gratis adlegerunt.

Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, had the temple of Isis, collapsed during the earthquake, restored from its foundations from private funds. The town-councillors adopted him to their ranks for this act of generosity free of charge, even though he was only six years old.

The contentious issue of underage town-councillors to one side, what this inscription shows is that structural damage, caused by natural forces, may mean opportunity just as much as it means a problem.

Which brings us back to modern-day Pompeii.

Pompeii, during its first life, has seen the detrimental impact of natural forces (as well as many a man-made disaster) upon its built structure and infrastructure. The inhabitants’ response was stoic – free of fear, as the Younger Seneca called it. Refurbishment, reconstruction of private and public buildings was the response, supported by the central government in Rome in the case of extreme events, with an opportunity for private benefactors to advertise their (not altogether unselfish) generosity. This was at a time when Pompeii was still alive and inhabited.

Brought back to life – if in its distinctive zombie-esque state – Pompeii still requires the same attention and the same level of public and private initiative, at all times, and potentially even more so than ever before, as (i) the structures have changed in nature following the impact of the eruption, and (ii) private initiative, as taken by the inhabitants of Pompeii, no longer is an option.

It is easy to pour scorn and contempt over the administrative shortcomings of those in charge of Pompeii. Yet, one may wish to give due consideration to the scale of their task – a task that was impossible to achieve even at the best of times, when it could be shouldered by hundreds and thousands of stubborn, fear-free individuals who inhabited Pompeii as well as the Emperor of Rome.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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