In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pompeii

  • Introduction
  • Archaeological Guides
  • Primary Sources
  • Textbooks and Handbooks
  • Urbanism and Infrastructure
  • Gardens and Landscape
  • Commerce
  • Social Identity
  • Rediscovery
  • Exhibition Catalogues

Classics Pompeii
Christopher A. Gregg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0177


Founded around the 6th century BCE, perhaps by the Italic Ausonian tribe, Pompeii rests on a plateau overlooking both the Sarno River and the Mediterranean, a site ideal for regional trade. The rich volcanic soil and lucrative location encouraged the city’s growth. The first few centuries of the city’s life are still obscured, but Greek influence from nearby Hellenic colonies is apparent in the public and private architecture of Pompeii, as typified by the Large Theater. Engulfed by Roman expansion, Pompeii became an ally of Rome but participated in the socii rebellion known as the Social Wars (89–80 BCE), resulting initially in “soft Romanization” where Pompeii appears to have willingly adopted certain culturally Roman structures and ideas. Although besieged in the Social War, Pompeii was left relatively unscathed. Despite its physical safety, Pompeii was punished by Rome at the conclusion of the conflict: legionary veterans were settled in the community and Pompeii’s civic status was reduced to that of a colony (Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum). The full social impact of the veterans and subsequent “hard” Romanization are subjects of continuing scholarly debate. In the archaeological record, however, the results are easily discernible through structures associated with Roman cities, such as the amphitheater. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, dates from the Imperial period: agriculture and trade were augmented by the area’s attraction as a resort destination for elite Romans. This seemingly idyllic life was interrupted in 62 CE when an earthquake struck the region, substantially damaging Pompeii. A swarm of seismic disruptions preceded the subsequent eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. This eruption entombed the city in ash and lapilli (small pieces of volcanic debris) that preserved it with stunning efficiency. Although evidence exists that survivors or treasure seekers returned to the devastated city to dig out valuables, the site itself was not reoccupied. Textual references kept the memory of Pompeii alive, but it was not until the 18th century CE that the site was correctly identified as Pompeii with formal excavations following. It is significant to note that Pompeii’s archaeological and art historical importance is inversely proportional to its historical importance. Its exceptional preservation has encouraged generalizing results of Pompeian scholarship to the Roman world at large. The trend to see Pompeii as the Roman world in microcosm has been criticized as the “Pompeii problem”; that said, nowhere else in the classical world do we find such depth and variety of information on nearly every aspect of ancient life.

General Overviews

Two primary obstacles stand in the way of writing a comprehensive overview of Pompeii that integrates both the archaeological remains and the culture that thrived on the site. The first obstacle is quite simply the sheer mass of information available for the site: there are the physical aspects of Pompeii with its architectural, art historical, and epigraphic material and there is the less tangible—but equally extensive—reconstruction of daily life in the city. The second obstacle involves the audience. Pompeii is certainly important to scholars of classical Antiquity, but its appeal goes far beyond that to the broader public. Authors of general works must decide which of these audiences they are speaking to and to what extent they will discuss the mechanics of how we know what we know. Beyond the city of Pompeii itself, the source of its preservation has also become a topic of much interest. Scholarly works on the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the aftermath of that eruption have been a subject dealt with by archaeologists and geologists.

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