Archaeological site of Pompeii


Pompeii – Temple of Apollo

Among the cities buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii is surely the most famous and the most visited of all. A stroll among its remains is a unique marvellous experience. The ancient city offers an opportunity to travel back into the past and to capture the feeling of its life. Monuments, public bath complexes, luxurious dwellings, temples and shops reveal the most evocative aspects of the town life in ancient times.
Perched on a hill overlooking the bay of Naples, the ancient town of Pompeii was also close to the Sarno river and it was very well connected with other river towns of the Sarno valley. Its strategic position made it a bustling commercial city and one of the most frequented towns in the area. The highly fertile volcanic soil, the favourable mild climate and the close proximity to the port of Puteoli (actual town of Pozzuoli), which was the most important port of the Roman Empire, gave Pompeians the opportunity to live a very comfortable life which is still evident from the remains of its buildings. The sumptuous and elegant houses, in particular those which were overlooking the sea and the river, still maintain amazing mosaics on the floor which, with the light of the sun, give us an idea of the prosperous life of its inhabitants. One of the most famous and grandiose mosaics is the one depicting the battle of Issus, which was discovered in the so-called House of the Faun. The original mosaic is now displayed in Naples National Archaeological Museum while a copy has been replacing it on the floor of the exedra room which lies between the two gardens of the magnificent residence.

The walls of the dwellings in Pompeii were decorated with exclusive and delicate frescoes depicting the life of Pompeians, their trades, their temples and their exhuberant gardens. Paintings were usually indicating the cultural and social status of the owner of the house and even the most humble homes were painted and reveal the owner’s cultivated taste for eye-catching art. The educated upper class inhabitants used to depict Greek mythological matters on the plaster walls of their residences. Some designs represented images of deities or narrated episodes from Greek history. The newly rich people used to decorate walls with frescoes representing still life subjects, illusionistic perspectives, landscapes of all sorts, like harbours, rivers, deserts or mountains but also animals and figurative compositions. Some of the walls and ceilings were also elegantly refined in stucco reliefs. Shops were also decorated with frescoes either depicting the lares and gods, who were supposed to protect business, or showing the goods that were sold. Brothels walls were decorated with grotesquely erotic caricatures or with scenes showing sexual activities. Each private or public building was also decorated with marble or bronze statues representing, most of times, gods, emperors, politicians or vip subjects. The marble relief of the frame surrounding the entrance door to the Eumachia clothes market, in the Forum, is one of the examples of the level reached by sculptors during the Roman time. They had been practising, for long time, the art of engraving derived from the Hellenistic art, and they became so skilled that they produced many marble carved artworks still visible in the archaeological site.


Pompeii – A rebuilt private garden

During the Roman Empire most of the rich upper class members started to express their social level and wealth by collecting luxury objects which would impress and delight the guests visiting a house. Most of those objects like silver vessels, glass bottles, miniature works of sculpture, precious stones, cameos and gems are now on display in Naples at the National Archaeological Museum but sometimes copies are replacing them inside the ruins.
Gardens had also an important role in the life of Pompeii. Considered a place of relaxation the gardens were the heart of the house. Whether large or small, the internal gardens of the houses of Pompeii were usually embellished with marble fountains and spouts, various litlle statues, small temples and splendid mosaics. Most of those gardens have been rebuilt thanks to the plaster casts of the trees which were obtained by pouring liquid cement into the cavities left by the plants in the layers of ash. The gardens were usually surrounded by porticos, covered by tiled roofs, which were useful in case of rain or shine.
Other buildings which are really worth a visit are the bathhouses. The most beautiful ones are the so-called Suburban Thermae placed outside the town in proximity of the Marina Gate entrance.
They are embellished by floor and wall mosaics, frescoes and stucco reliefs. Here it is possible to note the heating system that Romans were using in the thermal bath structures. The thermae were divided into sections for men and women and there were at least seven of those buildings in the entire town. However, the Forum baths, close to the Forum square and the Stabianae baths, the oldest ones in Pompeii, are the only other two bathhouses still open to the public for a visit.


Pompeii – Large Theatre

The theatre district, close to the Sarno river, is another area which is really interesting. Besides the Samnites Palestra (the Gym) and the Triangular Forum where the temple of Hercules was, this section of the town is famous for the Egyptian Temple of Isis where the remains of stucco reliefs and a hall, where the sacred water from the Nile river was kept, are still visible. The temple itself was visited by Wolfgang Amedeus Mozarth among other very famous travellers. Most of the frescoes and objects which were embellishing the temple were removed from Pompei and they were brought to Naples National Archaeological Museum.
The nearby large theatre, which could host some five thousand spectators, was decorated with marble reliefs and the names of the spectators are still engraved on the private seats. The small theatre, known as the Odeon, was used for music and for reading poetry and it was decorated with grey lava rock sculptures. Close to the two theatres there is still the beautiful Quadriportico which was the square where spectators used to gather before and after the theatre performances. After the earthquake of the year 62 AD, this area was used as a gym by gladiators.

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© 2016-2017 Dr Maria Sannino

Walking through the ancient town of Herculaneum (buried in A.D. 79)

© by Dr Maria Sannino


The ruins of ancient Herculaneum

The little hamlet of Herculaneum was situated on a high cliff overlooking the sea, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, which dominated the bay of Naples, in the Campania region, South Italy. Two small streams, gliding down from the volcano, were flanking the cliff supported by ramparts. Colored wooden fishing boats were on the black sandy beach of Herculaneum. High fornices had been built right underneath the temples where the Gods would watch the sailors leaving for a fishing trip and would protect them. To the right of the temples area, a terrace had a white marble cenotaph in its centre. Decorated with marmoreal reliefs, it was dedicated to Marcus Nonius Balbus, a very important personality who became the patron of Herculaneum.

Decumanus Maximus

Decumanus Maximus

Over the centuries, the small village had been transformed into a resort town for wealthy people and during the forth century b.C., soon after the Samnites wars, Herculaneum became a flourishing vacation centre for Roman patricians. Many successful philosophers and writers used to gather here to talk about philosophy and poetry.

Imposing dwellings, up above the reef, had their terraces facing the bay. The view from those residences was magnificent. The spectacular bay of Naples was opening, like an amphitheater, right in front of them. Their beautiful sweet-scented gardens, were adorned with many marble statues portraying Greek Gods or heroes, according to the taste of the owner of the lodging. The timber roofs were elegantly decorated either with basreliefs or frescoes. A rare example of a well preserved carbonised wooden roof, with a set of garnished panels, was found on Herculaneum’s ancient shoreline, in the year 2010.

Most of the houses of Herculaneum had an inlaid coloured marble floor, the walls were painted with delicate frescoes, the internal gardens were surrounded by rooms which were used for different purposes. An efficient sewerage network, collecting the waters from the houses, the shops and the thermal baths, was placed underneath the roads and drained on the foreshore.

The recent excavations and investigations along those sewers, give us the opportunity to have an idea of the life and the sort of diet that the Herculaneans had, before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius of the year A. D. 79 covered every single inch of their town. The city was, in fact, buried under some 25 meters of a pyroclastic flow during one of the most catastrophic eruptions in the world. The liquid hot material penetrated inside the houses and preserved almost everything: from carbonized wooden furniture, doors and windows, to jewels, seeds, fruits, bread, payri scrolls and even clothes. For more than sixteeen centuries Herculaneum remained buried beneath the medieval town of Resina, which was built, on top of the ancient city, a few years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It was only in 1709 when a worker, digging a well, discovered the theatre of the ancient buried town and the real adventure of the excavations of the ruins of Herculaneum began.


Roaming the streets of ancient Herculaneum means to take a trip into the past. Every corner has its own fascinating bit of history and culture, which are easily traceable in the well preserved houses and their gardens, which were recreated exactly as they were before the cataclysm of the year 79.

Crossing a high bridge and entering the town, the bastion used by the Roman army is still visible to the left. To the right, a huge mansion made the archaeologists think that this was a hotel. Its garden must have been so fragrant and so well looking. In fact, it had been planted with pomegranate and quince trees, among which beautiful scented roses were flowering into the sun. A street is leading to the centre of the town and towards the volcano. It is flanked by the remains of many elegant mansions and shops.

House of the deers

House of the deers

A hotel is in sight close to the man section of the thermal bath and its gym. To the left, a private basilica which was enriched with the statues of the most important emperors, is still beneath a thick layer of solid volcanic material. At the end of the road, just before entering the forum, which is still hidden under a huge amount of pyroclastic material, there is, to the right, the famous Collegium of the Augustales, a collegial shrine where the Roman priests (called Augustals) attended to the religious rites connected with the worship of the Emperor Augustus and the Julia gens. This large hall is decorated by frescoes portraying the mytholigical founder of the town: Hercules.

Exiting the suggestive shrine, an arch decorated by stucco reliefs will introduce the forum area which was facing the decumanus, the most important street in the city. This is a marvelous street flanked by imposing architectures. Here, well-preserved carbonized wood is astonishingly conspicuous: shelves, roofs, doors, windows are all clearly detectable. The shops are still decorated with frescoes and the wooden shelves are still hanging from the walls. Limestone drinking fountais, decorated with sculptures representing Gods, are located at each crossing. The decumanus was probably the location where a daily market was held, and many shops were aligned along the road.

A few impressive dwellings were facing the Decumanus. One of them would go down in history as many crucial wax tablets were found in a box inside one of its rooms. They were reproducing the important court case relative to Petronia Justa, a complicated process of the Roman time to determine whether she was a slave or a free person. Going down the forth street, called cardo, soon after the house of the Black Hall, considered one of the most beautiful homes in Herculaneum, the gorgeous women section of the thermal bath, is placed to the right. To the left, a series of stunning marble mosaics are visible in the houses facing the road. An amazing shop where terracotta amphoras are kept inside the original wooden shelves, still hanging from the wall, is right opposite the entrance to the thermal baths. Entering the apartment to the left of the shop, the eye is captured by a marvelous wall mosaic representing Amphitrite and Neptune. Continuing along the road the Samnite House to the left is worth a visit.

Herculaneum from the top

View from the top

After the intersection, to the right, there is one of the most famous dwelling of Herculaneum. Known as  the House of the wooden partition, which was used to give some privacy to the owner’s office, it also hosts an original wooden bed. Pristine mosaics and frescoes clearly show the importance of the family living here. Close to this building, an ironing wooden press, still untouched, gives us an idea of how laundries were organized two thousand years ago.

Returning to the crossing with the Decumanus inferior, which ends right in front of the Palestra (the gym), the small reliefs of winged Victories are traceable to the left. Reaching the next crossroad and turning to the left, a few shops, among which a laundry and a bakery, are aligned to the right. After the visit of the gym, returning to the intersection and continuing along the 5th cardo, it is possible to visit the most impressive Herculanean dwellings: the House of the deers to the right and Telefo’s house to the left.

Heading down towards the sea, the steep road leads towards the terrace of the marble cenotaph, to the left, and the temples aligned to the right which are overlooking the ancient marina. The underneath beach was the place where in 1981 a wooden Roman boat was uncovered, and recently, in 2010 an entire timber roof was discovered together with the set of the wooden panels which decorated it. It probably belonged to the House of the Relief of Telefus fronting the bay.  The plaster casts of people who were waiting for rescue boats during the eruption are visible in the warehouses aligned along the beach of ancient Herculaneum.

Returning to the main road which takes towards the exit and turning back, it is possible to see, at a distance, the location of the spectaular villa of the Papyri from which a library full of bookcases with carbonised papyri scrolls was found. Unfortunately the villa is still under 25 meters of volcanic material that hopefully will be removed in the near future so to open, to the public, this area too.

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