The ancient Roman town of Pompeii is located in the Campania region of modern day Italy. The town was located 14 miles (23 kilometers) southeast of Naples, sitting at the southeastern base of Mount Vesuvius. It is famously known today as the town that was preserved by ash after a volcanic eruption, providing archaeologists and historians with insight into what life was like in ancient Rome.
The Founding of Pompeii
The town of Pompeii was built on a spur formed by prehistoric lava on the mouth of the Sarno River on the Bay of Naples. Founded by the Oscan-speaking descendants of the Neolithic inhabitants of Campania,it soon came under the influence of the Greeks who had settled across the Bay of Naples in the 8th century BC.
Pompeii is first mentioned by name in 310 BC when a Roman fleet landed at the Sarnus port of Pompeii, and then made an unsuccessful attack on the neighboring town of Nuceria during the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC). By the end of the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC) the region of Campania, in which Pompeii was located, became a part of the Roman confederation.
However, the region was not Romanized until the Social War (90-89 BC) when Rome's Italian allies fought for independence after being denied the Roman franchise. Following the war, Pompeii and the portion of Italy south of the Po River received Roman citizenship. Latin became the official language and Roman institutions, architecture, and culture were installed.
In 79 AD, the town of Pompeii and the surrounding region was home to an estimated 20,000 people. The town flourished, becoming an elaborate resort town that hosted some of Rome’s most distinguished citizens. On the early afternoon of August 24, pieces of of ash and various volcanic debris began pouring down on the town from Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii was quickly covered in over 9 feet (3 meters) of debris.
The following morning, cascades of pyroclastic material and heated gas poured down the mountain at 100-miles-per hour, asphyxiating any residents still alive and swallowing up the city. Additional pyroclastic flows and large amounts of ash followed, burying Pompeii under a layer of ash 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 meters) deep.
Pliny the Younger (61-113 BC) witnessed the event from across the Bay of Naples, and described it in the following way: "Darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room." It is estimated that around 2,000 people in the city died, and smaller neighboring towns like Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Torre Annunziata were buried, abandoned, and forgotten for centuries.
Being closest to the eruption, Pompeii was the best preserved town and was protected for the next 17 centuries from vandalism, looting, and weather. At the end of the 16th century, Italian architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) discovered the ruins of Pompeii while digging up a new course for the river Sarno.
However, the ruins remained mostly untouched until 1748, when a group of explorers arrived in the Campania region after Herculaneum was discovered in 1709 and systematic excavation had began there in 1738. In 1763 an inscription (“Rei publicae Pompeianorum”) was found that identified the site as Pompeii.
Many scholars claim that the excavation of Pompeii played a major role in the European Neoclassical revival of the 18th century. The well preserved remains of the town have provided archaeologists with a unique source of information on many aspects of the economic, political, religious, and social lives of ancient Roman citizens.