Pompei and Herculaneum

Visit  to Pompeii and Herculaneum

[By E. Zimbardi]

On 27th May, a bright Saturday, our group of participants of the “Itinerant International Palaeographic School” held by Filippo Ronconi set off to visit two fascinating ancient towns: Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In the morning we visited Pompeii, which constitutes the biggest archaeological site of a Roman city (with its more than 66 hectares). At the start of the tour, our guide brought us near two big glass cases which preserve some carbonised corpses: people of every age, little babies protected by their mothers, old people covering their faces with the arms, lovers in their last hug, entire families. The position of their bodies is the tragic symbol of the unavoidable destiny of the town.

There is a difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum, which allowed for a better preservation of the former: Pompei was buried in a longer period of time, because of the ashes and lapilli from the Vesuvium. Thus, people died suffocated by the carbon monoxide and the load of the volcanic sediments. On the contrary, Herculaneum was immediately submersed by the lava which poured out from the near volcano. Furthermore, Pompeii was a highly populated town, with a lot of public buildings (most notably, two theatres, a gymnasium, and thermal baths).

That is why Pompeii allows modern scholars to have a varied insight in the ancient Roman lifestyle between the first century BC and AD.

To a group of palaeographers like us the appeal of Pompeii is constituted by the big number of epigraphic inscriptions and graffiti (tituli picti) which have been found all around the town.



The necropolis area has transmitted several inscriptions dedicated to the memory of the dead, as it was typical in the Graeco-Roman dead’s ritual.

One of the most striking examples of funerary architecture is the sepulchre of Mamia, a very influential public priestess who was granted the privilege of being buried in a monumental circular tomb which is still well preserved and recognizable thanks to an inscription.

The tour of Pompeii went forth to the gymnasium and the amphitheatres (Little and Big Odeion), which also preserve some honorific or dedications inscriptions.

When entering the core of the ancient town, along the decumanus maximus (named Via dell’Abbondanza), it is possible to visit different types of buildings: small shops, taverns, ancient laundries (fullonicae), small houses, brothels. On the wall of such buildings a lot of tituli picti has been found, most of them written in red colour and in rustic capitals. These inscriptions, which we could read with the invaluable help of Marc Smith, bear mostly political propaganda messages (elections for the new local magistrati were to be held after that fatal summer of 79 AD), identifications of places and names of owners and workers (even the names and the services of the lupae), adventitious expressions of private ideas and feelings, poems and epigrams of every nature. The impression that we got from this excursus in the writing habits of Pompeii is that the town was full of graffiti and epigraphs on the external (and sometimes internal) walls of the buildings.

While outside writing was used as a form of public, exposed communication in Pompeii, a lot of well preserved wall paintings decorated in a refined way the interiors of houses, villas and public buildings. Since the pivotal research of August Mau (Geschichte der decorativen Wandmalerei in Pompeij, Berlin, 1882), there is a traditional distinction in four different wall paintings styles, which can be approximately referred to a specific chronological range: first style (150-80 BC), second style (80-end of the 1st BC), third style (end of the 1st BC-middle of the 1st AD), fourth style (middle of the 1st AD-79).


Pompeii was a big city with a political system typical of every colonia Romana: the duoviri quinquennales, helped by two aediles, run the res publica, and decisions were discussed and deliberated in a little senate formed by the decuriones. Also in Pompeii there were a curia and a forum, which was the centre of the public life. A remarkable building near the forum is the ancient temple of Apollo, which wasthere since pre-Roman times and became during the Roman colonisation one of the most important religious buildings in town.

After lunchbreak and some rest, our group of palaeographers headed to Herculaneum. Our guide told us that the archaeological site of Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii for two reasons: firstly, the town was not very populated in ancient times, because it was mostly the seat of holidays villas of rich Romans. Besides, it was difficult to dig the ancient city, because archaeologists had to destroy the modern town in order to bring back to light the Roman one, and now only a limited area of 4,5 hectars can be seen. Herculaneum, despite its narrowness, appears to the modern visitor from an enchanting top-down point of view, that permits to admire its multi-storied villas and the edge of the ancient harbour. This spot is very striking: here visitors can see skeletons of people ready to flee through the see, preserved in the same positions of desperate wait for safety.



Herculaneum does not preserve as many inscriptions and tituli picti as Pompeii, but its main interest from an archaeological point of view is the fact that the architectures of the buildings have been well preserved, since they were hardened by the lava. Some fascinating and refined wall paintings still survive in the once luxurious villas of the rich Roman men spending their holidays in Herculaneum. The enriching archaeological visits of that Saturday came to an end in the late afternoon, while some ominous clouds darkened the shining sun, as to symbolise the twilight of the splendour of the ancient Roman civilisation.

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