History of the Ruins of Pompeii | The Fall and Rise of the Ancient City

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii is one of the most iconic archaeological sites in the world. Located near modern-day Naples, Italy, it was destroyed and buried under ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., preserving its buildings and artifacts for future generations to explore.

The ruins of Pompeii offer a unique window into life during Imperial Rome's heyday, with well-preserved streetscapes and homes that allow us to imagine what life must have been like before tragedy struck. Excavations at the site began in 1748 and continue today as archaeologists uncover more secrets from this once-thriving city.

Timeline of Pompeii

90-89 BC: General Sulla conquers Pompeii.

80 BC: General Sulla declares Pompeii a Roman colony.

59 AD: A fatal riot breaks out in the amphitheater leading to a decade-long ban on games held at the location.

62 AD: An earthquake destroys Pompeii, Herculaneum, and a few other towns in Campania.

79 AD: Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the surrounding towns under a blanket of volcanic ash.

1748: Spanish engineer makes the first attempt to discover Pompeii.

1763: An inscription is found during excavation and the city is identified as Pompeii.

1863: An Italian archaeologist discovers voids in the volcanic ash layers containing human remains and decides to fill them with plaster to create body forms of Pompeii’s citizens during their final moments – a technique that is still in use today.

1943: Bomb raids during the Second World War damage parts of Pompeii.

1951: During excavation, Italian archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri uncovers large areas south of Via dell’Abbondanza comprising bakeries, fulleries, factories, and other shops along with inscriptions on walls depicting elections and gladiator combats.

1971: Rock band Pink Floyd films a live concert at the amphitheater without an audience.

1997: Pompeii is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2016: Pink Floyd’s guitarist David Gilmour performs live at the amphitheater. It is the first performance to take place in front of an audience since 79 AD.

2020: Eric Pohler from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, in collaboration with the Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project, is carrying out excavations in Pompeii.

Detailed Pompeii History

Pompeii - Doric temple

Early History

740 BC/8th century BC

The Greeks in Campania arrived in 740 BC putting Pompeii on the map of the Hellenic people. The Doric Temple, now known as the Triangular Forum, was the most significant building then. In the 6th century BC, the community was surrounded by an impressive tufa city wall indicating that its residents were wealthy, perhaps that to the flourishing Maritime trade. The Etruscans also settled the surrounding areas and began to control the military, and 

Pompeii soon became a part of the Etruscan League of Cities. The community is known to have built the Temple of Apollo along with a primitive forum and several houses. However, their reign was short-lived because the Greek city of Cumae, along with Syracuse, gained control of the region by defeating the Etruscans in the Battle of Cumae in 474 BC.

Pompeii temple of jupiter

The Samnite Period

450 BC – 2nd century BC

This period in Pompeii’s history saw most areas of the city getting abandoned. The Samnites took over Greek Cumae and eventually introduced new architecture. The Samnite Wars (343 BC – 341 BC) saw the entry of Romans into Campania, making Pompeii part of the Roman orbit despite being ruled by the Samnites. It remained faithful to the Romans during the third Samnite War, the Second Punic War, the conquest of the East, and the war against Pyrrhus after which it was forced to accept the status of the socii of Rome. 

The city continued to flourish despite political uncertainty and the migration of the wealthy due to intensive agriculture and the production and trade of oil and wine. Important buildings like The Forum, the Temple of Jupiter, The Large Theatre, the Basilica, the Stabian Baths, and more were built during this period.

Theatre of Pompeii

The Roman Period

89 BC – 59 AD

This was the time when Pompeii was one of the Campanian towns to rebel against Rome in the Social Wars. However, Sulla conquered the city in 89 BC leaving Pompeii with no choice but to surrender following the conquest of Nola. The city was declared a Roman colony and its residents were granted citizenship. With the main language becoming Latin, many aristocrats Latinized their names as a sign of support and assimilation.

The Roman period saw the construction of several farms and villages that have now been excavated, including Villa of the Mysteries and Villa of Diomedes. Pompeii became a passage for goods. Many structures were renovated and new buildings were constructed like the Forum Baths, the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, and the Odeon, which established the city as a cultural center. However, a riot in 59 AD forced the authorities to ban all events at the amphitheater for a decade.

Pompeii Mount Vesuvius

Mount Vesuvius Awakes

62 AD – 79 AD

Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, a powerful earthquake ravaged Pompeii, Herculaneum, and a few other towns of Campania causing massive destruction around the Bay of Naples. Following the major earthquake, tremors continued and people got accustomed to them. No one recognized the warning signs because earthquakes weren’t uncommon in Campania. 

Frequent minor earthquakes were felt as early as four days before the volcanic eruption. The damage caused in 62 AD had not been completely repaired when Mount Vesuvius erupted. About 600 sheep died in Pompeii due to polluted air, which suggested that the earthquake might have been caused due to new activity in Mount Vesuvius.

Mount Vesuvius Erupts
Pompeii ruins

Rediscovery of Pompeii

1592 - 1863

Following the Mount Vesuvius eruption, relief efforts were made to help victims, but valuables, statues, and other artifacts were also looted. The Pompeii eruption in 471 AD – 473 AD and 512 AD further buried the remains. Later in 1592, architect Domenico Fontana discovered ancient walls adorned with paintings and inscriptions while digging an underground aqueduct. In 1748, Spanish architect Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre found remains at the site. An inscription was discovered a few years later in 1763, which led to the identification of the city being Pompeii.

Over the years, several excavations were carried out and significant discoveries were made including the existence of voids in the ash layers containing human remains. Giuseppe Fiorelli, who found the remains, injected plaster into them to recreate the body forms – a technique used even today. The only difference is that plaster has been replaced by clear resin to avoid further deterioration of the bones. The city was divided into different areas and blocks, houses were numbered, and all the information and findings were documented.

Pompeii house

Modern Excavations

1920 - 2021

In the 1920s, the excavation process became more organized and systematic. Architect Amedeo Maiuri discovered large areas south of Via dell’Abbondanza consisting bakeries, fulleries, factories, other shops as well as wall inscriptions depicting elections and gladiator combats. However, they were neither properly documented nor carefully preserved for reconstruction. Further excavations were eventually put on hold because the administration wanted to focus more on the conservation of the Pompeii ruins rather than discovering newer areas, buildings, or valuables.

Archaeologists found remains of harnessed horses in the Villa of the Mysteries in 2018. A couple of years later, a thermopolium, terracotta pots, a bronze drinking bowl, a snack bar, frescoes, remnants of meals, ceramic jars, cooking stews, and more were excavated. In 2021, a bronze ceremonial chariot and a painted tomb of a slave were uncovered during an excavation.

Conservation of Pompeii

When excavation efforts began during the 18th and 19th centuries, historians found the town almost entirely preserved under a blanket of ash. To prevent unsystematic excavation and loss of potentially-important evidence, the entire process was carefully documented. Through these excavation efforts we have been able to gain great insight into the local culture, from politics, and economy to even food habits.

Pompeii artifacts

Conservation Projects

A site as expansive and historic as Pompeii needed to be preserved for which several conservation projects were undertaken. These projects aimed at minimizing the natural and man-made forces that were destroying it. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompeii, the administrative body responsible for the conservation of the site controls all the funding and initiates projects to prevent further theft, manage tourists, restore frescoes and sculptures and other artifacts, reconstruct buildings, remove plants, etc. using modern technology.

A moratorium on excavations was declared in 1999 and it was decided that the funds would be used to preserve the Pompeii ruins to prevent further deterioration instead of excavating further. All houses were marked according to regions for proper identification. The bodies of the deceased were converted into casts. Iconic structures like the Forum, the Amphitheater, and the villas were restored to avoid further destruction and deterioration.

Pompeii Artifacts ad ruins

Problems with Conservation

The Pompeii ruins were well-preserved for over 2,000 years since being buried under layers of volcanic ash, which prevented deterioration. However, after the excavations took place, all the objects and monuments were exposed to light, moisture, erosion, weathering, water damage, plants, animals, and other climatic changes as well as vandalism, tourism, theft, and war – all of which have caused damage to the historic site and created hurdles for archaeologists trying to preserve and conserve the ruins.

In 2010, the House of the Gladiators collapsed due to heavy rainfall and lack of proper drainage. Various bouts of unsystematic excavations also caused damage to several valuable objects, artifacts, and antiques. For example, a collection of bronze letters fixed on a wall were discovered. But they were retrieved in a disorganized manner without recording the original placement due to which it lost its historical meaning and significance.

Several such incidents have resulted in archaeologists worrying about conservation efforts. Even though the site receives funding for the same, Pompeii is so vast and expansive and has so many issues to solve that the funds seem inadequate leading to slow deterioration of the ruins.

Pompeii Today

Pompeii’s history is fascinating, to say the least. The ancient city opened to the public in 1874 as an open-air museum exhibiting archaeological finds that depicted the daily life of Pompeii residents. Over the years, it has become an extremely popular tourist destination with about 2.5 million people visiting the Pompeii ruins every year. It is symbolic of the rich history, lifestyle, and culture of ancient Rome. 

Covering an area of 66 hectares, Pompeii, as we know them today, consist of remains of several public buildings spread over three areas including the Forum, the Amphitheater and Palestra, and the Triangular Forum. Admire the beautifully preserved houses, temples, cafes, shops, farms, gardens, vineyards, and even a brothel that offer a deep insight into daily Roman life. 

Marvel at the frescoes, paintings, sculptures, and inscriptions on walls and stones, learn about how Pompeii was planned, and climb to the top of Mount Vesuvius and soak in breathtaking views of the city that boasts a rich culture and history making it a must-visit on your trip to Italy. 

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Frequently Asked Questions About Pompeii Ruins History

Q. How old is Pompeii?

A. The city of Pompeii is about 2,000 years old.

Q. How many years did it take to build Pompeii?

A. The exact number of years is not known but the city was built around the 9th-8th century BC while the Pompeii ruins were first discovered in the late 16th century AD.

Q. What was Pompeii originally built for?

A. Pompeii was originally an inland port used for trade, industry, business, and administration of justice.

Q. Where is Pompeii located?

A. Pompeii is located in southern Italy.

Q. What is Pompeii famous for?

A. Pompeii is famous for being buried under 6 meters of volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The ruins were preserved underneath before they were discovered in the late 16th century.

Q. How much does it cost to visit Pompeii?

A. Prices for Pompeii tickets start at €22.

Q. Are there any guided tours explaining Pompeii’s history?

A. Yes, guided tours to Pompeii are available. Booking a Pompei guided tour will allow you to explore the city ruins and gain an in-depth insight into the city’s history.

Q. What is the most interesting fact about Pompeii’s history?

A. One of the most interesting facts about Pompeii’s history is that it was originally a Greek city before it became Roman. Another interesting fact is that the walls are covered with graffiti that was made before the eruption and give incredible insight into Roman life and society.

Q. Is it worth visiting Pompeii?

A. Yes. Pompeii is an incredible and fascinating place to visit because it is a testimony to ancient Greek and Roman history. It is a city that stands frozen in time buried under ash and pumice since the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Q. Who was killed in Pompeii?

A. Around 2,000 Pompeii residents died due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Q. How many people survived the eruption at Pompeii in 79 CE?

A. There is a record of only one person surviving the eruption – a man named Cornelius Fuscus. He died in a military campaign later.

Q. Are there still bodies in Pompeii?

A. The bodies that were found during excavation were preserved as casts that captured Pompeiians during their final moments.

Q. What is left of Pompeii today?

A. Today, Pompeii is home to several important buildings and monuments including the amphitheater and the Forum. All the frescoes, paintings, sculptures, jewellery, and other artworks and artifacts have been preserved and exhibited in the Pompeii Antiquarium.