I took a break from blogging the last couple weeks due to a combination of trips, including one abroad to Spain, France and Italy.
We docked near the former city of Pompeii, the Roman settlement buried by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius in the early part of the first century. As we walked into the large park where old stone walls have long since been excavated to reveal the borders of the city, my mind turned back to those images published in National Geographic fifty or sixty years ago.
As a child I stared at those images and wondered that someone could be frozen in time, solidified in a tomb of their own shape and size. Having heard the biblical term “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as part of an upbringing in the Christian church, I wondered back then what it meant to be turned into a twisted relic of one’s self. What did that mean?
We climbed the steps up to the City of Pompeii and were met with a network of old Roman streets. There were ruts in the stone made by chariot wheels. Suddenly all of time shrank to an aural recollection of how that must have sounded to hear horse hooves and chariots clattering down those streets.
You certainly could not have run very far on them. Every step required a full attention span. The space between inlaid boulders was in some places three to four inches across.
Yet those roads have lasted forever. These days cyclists negotiate the former Roman roads made of rough pave in the north of France. They bounce along trying to avoid flats in the Paris-Roubaix spring classic. A modern competition on the roads of antiquity.
The sport of choice in Pompeii was something far more earthy. The sexual imagery discovered during excavation of the city was scandalizing to many who viewed it. Even the most casual demarcations above doorways were depictions of erect phalluses, a sign of good luck and fertility.
The local brothel did a brisk business with the seaman and merchants that arriving in port eager for food, drink and a romp with one of the enslaved whores in a district of town. Men were guided by to the whorehouses by pale white stones embedded in streets. These helped led them to their pleasures even in the dark of night, and when moonlight shone, their eyes must have glinted with the promise of sex soon to be had.
Not to leave anything to chance, the sex workers howled at night like wolves to attract their many customers. Talk about having difficult neighbors…
It is reported that following the burial of Pompeii under volcanic ash, even Rome’s leadership was not inclined to exhume it. Some believed the place was so cursed by its lusts that it was a condemnation of fate similar to the famed story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Judeo-Christian scripture. Could the allegorical reference be more similar?
Pompeii had things pretty well figured out on a number of fronts, but modesty and chastity were not one of them. Even the sanitation of the town was more pragmatic than considerate. The streets themselves were gutters down which flows of water and human excrement could wash to the low ground. The city could not have smelled good at all on hot days.
Yet the people who lived there also knew how to celebrate life in fine ways as well. The frescos on walls depict lively hunts in realistic fashion. The layout in many houses allowed people to recline on their beds while gazing upon large paintings such as these, often featuring gardens and wild creatures. Virtual reality is not a new concept to humanity.
The entire experience of visiting Pompeii made time disappear. As we rounded a corner I looked up to see Mount Vesuvius against a blue sky in the distance. I could easily imagine the 14km pillar of ash and gas billowing up in the sky. Then its weight grew so great it tipped and collapsed upon the city with great force and peril for all who lived there.
As we now know, the entire population was dramatically covered and entombed while going about their daily business. All of life within the city came to a sudden stop. Men and women and children were turned to hot ash in an instant. Streets and houses were consumed. Perhaps a few small pups like the dog in the photo were lying in the dust when the pumice and gas fixed them forever in time.
It’s not that hard to imagine. It’s certainly not hard to believe. Not with all this evidence of history still standing in testament to what life was like back then. We all like to assume that we’re immune to peril in our daily lives, that nature would never attack us, or our culture.
Yet we’re always wrong. But we keep on running ahead in hopes of avoiding the next towering plume of fate or the next round of dangerous gases sent by God or bad luck to whatever end awaits us.