Fascinating history and facts that will make you want to visit Pompeii. From what, when and where it is to how it looks today, to Mount Vesuvius volcano and its eruption, to history facts and pictures. We gathered the most relevant information to introduce you to one of the most compelling archaeological sites in the world.

Contents:

  1. Pompeii or Pompei
  2. Where is Pompeii?
  3. History of Pompeii
  4. City Of Pompeii
  5. Destruction of Pompeii
  6. Pompeii Facts
  7. Tickets and opening times
  8. Visiting Pompeii (+Pictures)

Pompeii or Pompei

Let’s start with the name. What is Pompeii. Pompeii was an ancient Roman town in the Campania region in southern Italy. Nowadays it is located in the territory of the modern city of Pompei. Interestingly, for Italians there is just one name – Pompei, whereas visitors from abroad have their own exonyms, i.e. common names used outside the place usually for historical reasons. So in English the name of the historical site is Pompeii, the same way as Herculaneum is the name of Pompeii’s sister town which Italians call Ercolano, exactly like the modern town. To add even more confusion, some travelers who are just starting their search for information about Pompeii don’t know the right spelling and type the name of the city by how they hear it. This leads to results like Ponpeii, Pompey, Pompai or Pompii. Anyway, once you arrive here, there is no more ambiguity, as you walk among one of the most known historical sites in the world.

Aerial bird's eye view of Pompeii, Italy
Bird’s-eye aerial view of Pompeii in Italy. Captured from aircraft, it gives better depth perception than satellite images.

Where is Pompeii?

The ancient city of Pompeii is located in the territory of the modern Italian city of Pompei, in Southern Italy, almost 2 kilometers (a bit more than 1 mile) from the sea, 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Naples and 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Rome. Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the city, is the dominant geographical feature of the area.
But where was Pompeii? The answer to this question differs a bit. In fact, 2000 years ago, the city was on the coast of the bay. However, right after its destruction by the nearby volcano it was no longer the case .
A visual answer to the question “Where is Pompeii located?” is given by the following map showing Pompeii location in the bay of Naples, in Italy and within the world map.

Pompeii, Italy. Location within the bay of Naples, within Italy and within the world map.
Pompeii, Italy. Location within the bay of Naples, within Italy and within the world map.

History of Pompeii

According to scientific evidence, the town was founded in the 7th – 6th century BC by the Oscans, or Osci, Italic people of the region. They established the settlements of both Pompeii and Herculaneum. In that same period, there were several Greek colonies in the Bay of Naples where Hellenistic influences in architecture came from. In fact, the most important religious building – Temple of Apollo – was built in Pompeii during this period.
Where was Pompeii located? It was strategically established on the crossroad between Stabiae (a small port town founded by Oscans earlier), Nola and Cumae (the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy). The latter, conquered Pompeii during the 6th-5th century BC.
In the 5th-4th century BC, an Italic tribe from the southern Apennines – the Samnites – invaded Campania region and captured all the towns. It was a prosperous period as the new rulers enlarged the town and introduced their architecture, built distinctive Samnite houses (one of them is well preserved and visitable in Herculaneum) and the Stabian Baths in Pompeii.
In the 4th century BC, during the Samnite Wars, Rome defeats the Samnites and Pompeii is forced to become an ally or socium of Rome. Nevertheless, the city remained self-governing, maintained its linguistic autonomy but not Roman citizenship. During this period, Pompeii was fortified by Romans and a substantial wall was built around the city.
Ironically, this same wall was used against Romans at the beginning of the 1st century BC when Pompeii together with other towns of Campania region initiated the Social War against Rome. Pompeii was first besieged by the Roman general Sulla and several years later it became a Roman colony. Still today you can see signs of this battle near the Herculaneum gate on the north side of the wall. Herculaneum was also captured and became a municipium, i.e. officially a town. This was the Romanization stage when Roman laws, governments and religion were introduced together with Latin language. Since then, Pompeii gained its importance as a trade town for goods arriving by sea and distributed across Southern Italy including Rome. In this period, Romans improved roads and paths, built distinctly Roman structures such as arches, theaters, amphitheaters and basilicas.
By the end of the century, the town had a water supply system fed by Acqua Augusta – a 140 kilometers long engineering masterpiece of Roman aqueduct built by the Emperor Augustus.
The city and the region prospered during the longest peaceful period the Roman Empire had ever known – Pax Romana or Augustan peace. Nothing presaged any disaster…

City Of Pompeii

The ancient Pompeii was surrounded by a wall with 8 gateways giving access to the city. It consisted of rectangular residential blocks each including private houses, luxurious villas, shops and taverns. Generally, houses were inward-looking with rooms opening onto an inner courtyard or garden rather than onto the street. As a trade town, Pompeii featured a range of commercial buildings along with religious and recreational ones. The main economy was local and based on agricultural production, fishing, trade and small-scale manufacturing.

Industry

Villas in and especially around Pompeii featured farms that raised animals and produced olives, grapes and a range of grain crops. Wine was consumed locally but also exported across the empire. Garum, a sauce made from fermented fish, was another product both for local and export markets. The city featured a number of fulleries where washing, bleaching and dyeing of clothes were performed. The metalworking industry was also present in the city. Among commonly used metals were iron, copper and precious metals; fish hooks, braziers, pans, jewelry and other excavated objects support this claim. As for the food industry, the city had around 30 bakeries equipped with grinding millstones and around 150 taverns and food/drink shops. And of course the city had a food market where residents could buy local produce.

People

The basic unit of society was the household, i.e. familia, which included family members and slaves. Every person belonged to one of the 3 social classes – freeborn, freed or slaves. Social mobility between classes was allowed, for instance, slaves could purchase or be granted their freedom by their owner. Freedmen formed a significant part of the population and used to run small businesses. Their children could gain the status of Roman citizens, which was not granted to freedmen.
Slaves were another significant class accounting for one quarter of the population. Some of them, the educated ones, were tutors to their owner’s children, some others worked as cooks, cleaners, nurses, servers or even performers at banquets. Slaves could be bought and sold or even inherited.
Women had some limitations in political life, e.g. could not vote, but for the rest had the same rights as men, e.g. own property or slaves and conduct business.

Everyday life

People in Pompeii enjoyed a range of public activities including sport and leisure ones. Residents used to attend gladiator combats in the amphitheater (and gambled on the outcomes), drama performances, concerts and poetry readings in theaters. Men used to exercise and do athletic activities in a special sports area, i.e. palestra. What might sound surprising is that houses, even large ones, had no kitchen, instead cooking was done on a portable brazier usually used in the garden. Also people used to buy take-away food from the taverns.
Most houses did not have bathrooms, so Pompeians used to go to the public baths, though not only for personal hygiene, but also for socializing, relaxation and even exercise.
As for clothing, men used to wear a simple knee-length woolen garment, i.e. tunic. Only citizens were entitled to wear the toga, i.e. long white cloth worn over the tunic. Married women were also expected to wear the stola, a long sleeveless tunic, on top of the basic tunic.
Religion was an important part of everyday life for Pompeians. They, like Romans, were polytheists and worshiped a variety of gods believing that this practice would ensure peace, fertility and prosperity. Temples, statues and paintings are all evidence of deities that were worshiped and among them are Apollo, Hercules and Dionysus adopted from the Greeks but also Roman gods like Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. Most of the houses had a so called lararium, a small shrine with paintings or figures of the gods who were believed to protect members of the household.

Destruction of Pompeii

Before finding out what happened to Pompeii, let’s add some geographical context and talk about the volcano that appears as the answer to the question “most known volcano” in Google – Mount Vesuvius.

Volcano

Mount Vesuvius is the culprit of the destruction of Pompeii. Today it is classified as a stratovolcano, i.e. a volcano built up by many layers of hardened lava and ash characterized by periodic explosive eruptions. But what did Romans know about it 2000 years ago?
Back then this mountain was all green, covered with gardens and vineyards, and quiet as it had been for hundreds of years since the previous eruptions. Only the summit was craggy, revealing its volcanic history. In fact, the soil of the area around the volcano was very fertile as a result of eruptions of Mount Vesuvius over millennia. The fertility of the soil in some areas allowed to produce up to several grain crops per year. In addition to this, the mild climate with short winters and coastal breezes in summer attracted wealthy people from Rome, even members of the imperial family, to come here and build holiday homes and luxurious villas. It’s worth noting, however, that earthquakes and tremors were common to the area and Romans grew accustomed to them. And one of the biggest of them happened in the year 62 AD. It caused widespread destruction in the area and particularly considerable damage to both Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the following 17 years the cities undertook extensive repairs. Public buildings and private houses were still being rebuilt and decorated over again when the worst happened…

Eruption

On 24 August 79 AD, after four days of minor earthquakes that took place in the region and were considered by residents not particularly alarming, the long dormant volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted. Ironically, it happened just the day after the annual festival in honor of Vulcan, the god of fire (including that of volcanoes). It completely buried not only the flourishing Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also the nearby Stabiae and Oplontis, under meters of stone, ash and boiling mud.
Very long time after this disaster happened and using different sources of information for evidence, it was possible to reconstruct the course of the events and propose a realistic scenario of how the eruption evolved. It lasted two days and happened in two stages.
— All started in the middle of the day when a massive explosion threw a column of ash and pumice 15-30 kilometers (9-18 miles) up into the air. The shape of the volcanic cloud resembled a pine tree rising on a tall trunk then splitting into branches. It was indeed described this way by Pliny the Younger, the only eyewitness to have left a written evidence of the eruption. Nowadays, these type of eruptions are not surprisingly called Plinian. The reason for such a such a powerful explosion was the superheated steam. Over long time, ground waters under the volcano had been seeping into the deep cracks reaching the magma and being transformed into steam, that once escaped, created and supported this high column of volcanic material reaching the stratosphere.
— This cloud of ash and pumice started to collapse and fell onto the streets and buildings of Pompeii, completely avoiding the nearby Herculaneum thanks to the wind direction. It rained rocks for 17 hours! The deposit of volcanic material reached more than 2.5 meters (almost 9 feet). Under its weight many rooftops collapsed and sparks may have ignited fires. At this point most residents took the opportunity to flee as it was the last opportunity to escape the town.
— The second stage of the eruption started in the night or early in the morning of the next day. The volcano began to release the so called pyroclastic surges, i.e. turbulent masses of searing hot ash and poisonous gases able to reach 100-300 kilometers per hour (60-185 miles per hour) and to rise over the ridges. The surges were alternated by flows of molten rock, ash and pumice heated up to 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit).
— The first surge and flow reached Herculaneum, killing the remaining residents, but it did not reach Pompeii. The second surge and flow dissipated along the way down the slopes before reaching Pompeii. The third and fourth surges covered Pompeii, killing the remaining people and animals. The fifth and sixth surges and flows completely buried all the towns in the area: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis.

Impact

The powerful eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated the surrounding area and changed the geography of the region. Pompeii was covered by at least 4 meters (13 feet) of volcanic material, whereas Herculaneum lay under up to 25 meters (82 feet) of debris which cooled into a solid mass and sealed the town for 1500 years.
The previously navigable river Sarnus nearby Pompeii was turned from its course. The coastline was extended by about 500 meters (1600 feet) and raised up to 25 meters (82 feet).

Pompeii Facts

For those who are looking for interesting facts about Pompeii, we collected the most searched ones here. Some of them are short or long answers to the most asked question by travelers, some other are quick facts you may be curious to know about.

How old is Pompeii?
2500-2600 years

How many people lived in Pompeii?
Between 10000 and 20000. Although the range is wide, it is an accurate estimate of Pompeii’s population.

What volcano destroyed Pompeii?
Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that had been dormant for several centuries before its catastrophic eruption.

When was Pompeii destroyed?
It was year 79 AD. The eruption started on August 24 and lasted 2 days.

Did anyone survive in Pompeii?
Yes. Although the population of Pompeii is not exactly known, it is estimated that 90% of people escaped as the eruption began.

When was Pompeii discovered?
In the years following the eruption, Romans sacked the upper layers of the buried city of Pompeii riddling tunnels in the area. Since then, Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as other minor towns remained forgotten and lay buried for 1500 years before any part of them was unearthed.

When was Pompeii rediscovered?
It happened by accident in the 1590s. While workmen were digging a canal to divert the river Sarno (the one Pompeians used to navigate before the tragic eruption), they discovered Latin inscriptions, and later also walls with fragments of frescoes and statues. It was a further 150 years before systematic excavations took place.

Tickets and opening times

11 Euros is the entrance fee per person. There is free admission for people under 18. For European Union members between 18 and 24 years the entry fee is 5.5 Euros.
However, in the occasion of special exhibitions housed withing the excavations, the entrance fee is 13 Euros (and 7.5 Euros respectively).
Next to the ticket counter, there is a stand where you can get a free Pompeii map and a brief guide to the Pompeii excavations.

Hours
9.00 – 17.00 from 1 November to 31 March
9.00 – 19.30 from 1 April to 31 October
Last admission: 1.5 hours before the closing time.

Closure days: 1 January, 1 May, 25 December

Visiting Pompeii (+Pictures)

Before visiting Pompeii, we want to give you practical information about what to expect from your visit. Here we have listed points of interest that you will actually be able to see or visit inside. Due to maintenance of the site and its restoration, buildings and houses open for visitors change on monthly and yearly basis. Just recently several houses with impressive gardens, architectural decorations and wall paintings were opened to public after years and years of restoration. So it is definitely an exciting time to visit Pompeii ruins.
Pompeii has not been excavated in its entirety, and still it covers an area of approximately 45 hectares (out of total 66 hectares). There are around 100 structures and buildings that have been thoroughly mapped, studied and given a historical description. However more or less half of them are temporary or permanently closed to the visitors. It’s worth noting that visiting the other half would still require an entire day, and by it we mean from 6 to 10 hours. Generally, it is not what travelers end up doing. Some travelers, especially those who have no time constrains, can wander around the ancient streets, looking at the map from time to time and try to get a sense of the extensive historical site. Some other visitors do not have a full or even half day for a thorough visit of the excavations. And often times they cut out some or many points of interest from their route.
With an optimal choice of the route, you can visit 60-80% of the site in half of the aforementioned time or even less (i.e. 2 to 3 hours). That is exactly where we step in. When you book our tour, we attentively choose our routes so to leave you with possibly the most complete image and impression of the ancient Pompeii.
Here we have collected some of the most worth noting buildings and structures open to the visitors today in 2016. Some others you will be able to see during an actual tour.

Amphitheater

How Amphitheater seats remains in Pompeii appear now with poppies

Usually, our visit to Pompeii begins at the less busy entrance – Amphitheater Square. It’s no wonder that once you pass through the gate the first building you see in front of you is exactly the Amphitheater. Built in the year 70 BC, it is the oldest we know in the Roman world. It was the largest structure in the city. Its capacity was more than Pompeii’s population – around 20000 spectators. The amphitheater was dedicated to public leisure in the form of blood sports such as gladiators combats and other contests and spectacles.

How Amphitheater seats in Pompeii appear today
Currently you can visit and walk across the arena, but not in the area intended for spectators. In addition, today there is a special but only temporary exhibition in the central arena where you can see very unique artifacts. On display there are carbonized food remains that survived 2000 years after the eruption – entire loaves of bread, barley and wheat seeds, peas, olives and even a pan with beans soup! Absolutely impressive.

Pompeii artifacts in the form of carbonized barley and wheat seeds

House of Julia Felix

Garden view inside house of Julia Felix in Pompeii, Italy

An urban villa, one of the largest complexes in Pompeii where the house and gardens take up almost an entire block. The property opened to the public in 2016 and let visitors walk along the garden framed by elegant marble columns and a long water feature recalling a canal in Egypt. Visitors can also admire colorful frescoes and a summer dining room overlooking the garden where the guests could enjoy the cascading water behind them, while reclining on marble beds. The house was so big to include more than 20 rooms and even private baths, although not currently accessible.

Marble columns inside house of Julia Felix in Pompeii, Italy

House of Venus in the shell

The house was built in the first century BC and was being restored when Mount Vesuvius erupted. It was first excavated in 1930s but was damaged during World War II bombing and restored again in 1950s. The residence has a main hall leading to a courtyard with a garden where on the back wall there is a spectacular fresco with goddess Venus that gives the house its name. It depicts the protectress of Pompeii lying in a large shell completely naked and wearing just jewelry. Impressive colors and integrity!

Wall painting in the House of Venus in the shell in Pompeii, Italy

House of Octavius Quartio

Hunting themed wall painting in the House of Octavius Quartio in Pompeii, Italy

This elite property is an impressive building with many decorative remains and an extensive garden. The entrance has casts of the original wooden doors. Many rooms have lost their decoration, but where they are still in place you can admire the Pompeian red, yellow and black frescoes adorned by architectural motifs. The garden however is the highlight of this residence. It features two connected waterways with small waterfalls, all decorated with marble statues and wall paintings with reference to Egypt. At the end of one of the canals there is a small summer dining room with almost integral and very colorful frescoes.

Garden waterway/canal in the House of Octavius Quartio in Pompeii, Italy

Fullery of Stephanus

This property has an unusual story. It was transformed from a residence into a fullery, i.e. laundry. The owner converted the impluvium, i.e. the traditional decorative water tank in the floor under a roof opening, into a large tub for laundry use. This type of business was important in a city which residents used to wear white fabric clothes and togas. In fact, it offered the public service of washing garments, treating them with human and animal urine for bleaching. Residents contributed in collecting the urine in pots placed along the streets.

Thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus

Large houses in Pompeii usually rented out the rooms facing the street. This way businesses had exposure as they opened directly onto the main roads. It was exactly the case with this thermopolium, i.e. tavern or the equivalent of a modern day cafe/bar serving hot and cold food and beverages. The richly decorated marble counter features large jars used to hold food. On the wall behind the counter there is a small shrine dedicated to the protectors of the household and depicting them in a well preserved painting.

Marble counter and painted lararium at the tavern/thermopolium of Vetutius Placidus in Pompeii, Italy

Large Theater

This huge building, second only to the amphitheater, is evidence of the popularity of dramatic performances. It seated around 5000 people and here Pompeians performed comedies, tragedies and farces of Greek-Roman tradition. Entry was free but seats were assigned according to social class. The theater was so advanced to have had a large roof canopy used to protect spectators the heat of the sun. The current look of the building is the result of the most recent restoration that involved the complete recreation of seating. Visiting the theater today gives you a more real sense of how it looked two millennia ago.

Restored grand/large theater in Pompeii, Italy

Forum

The civil forum was the main public square in the city. Used primarily for the vending of goods, i.e. as a marketplace, it was surrounded by religious, business and administrative buildings. The forum was also a gathering place and used for political discussions and debates. It was so big to be able to contain the entire population of Pompeii. Nothing remains of the many statues that graced the forum as the place had been explored and stripped of its decorations in ancient times. Currently, in the forum there are some modern statues that enhance the ancient look in a very interesting way.

Ancient forum with modern statues and Mount Vesuvius in the back at Pompeii, Italy

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