Pompeii’s history reads like a Greek tragedy. Settlers originally flocked to the site of the Roman port city because of its fertile soil, the product of volcanic ash from nearby Mount Vesuvius. Yet, the very same volcano that gave people fertile land would erupt and doom the city of almost 20.000 inhabitants, freezing them for eternity, in 79 AD.
Many Europeans toured the city’s ancient ruins in the decades following their initial excavations in 1748. Indeed, Pompeii became all the rage across the continent, inspiring a gaudy revival in Classical art and architecture.
This important historic site began as a small coastal settlement which covered about 10 hectares. As in many modern cities, the original shape of the city can still be seen even today. By the 6th century BC, the town had expanded to more than six times its original size and was dominated by the Etruscans. Nevertheless, its culture is borrowed vastly from the neighbouring Greek cities.
Even though one half of Pompeii collapses, archaeologists continue to uncover the part that is still buried. By now they are working outside the town centre and their discoveries are more mundane than grand temples or pompous villas. In fact, in 1980, archaeologists discovered an underground cool room, in which a bumper crop of pomegranates had been stored.
It must have seemed like a safe haven from the noise and chaos in the open air and fifty four people took shelter in this basement room, only to perish as poisonous gases sank down the staircase after them and then the roof of the building collapsed under the weight of ash. That in turn led the floor to fall in on them, burying them and preserving their skeletons.
Recently the Italian authorities have had the leisure to submit the skeletons to detailed analysis and they have turned up some fascinating facts. Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist from Vienna, was one of the team that examined the remains and he was fascinated to discover a pair of twins whose skeletons bore marks that today would be interpreted as congenital syphilis.
Almost as surprising was the discovery that the people of Pompeii did not live lives that were short, nasty and brutish. There was a good range of ages among the fifty-four, from children up to elderly. What is often forgotten is that when we talk of a short life expectancy, we are talking averages. It may well be true that the average life expectancy was 48, but the fact was that the majority of those young deaths took place before the age of ten.
In fact, only half the population lived longer than ten years, but if you survived that long, you could expect to live almost as long as people do today. Another factor was the diet eaten by these people. Analysis of waste found in rubbish dumps and cesspits in Pompeii and Herculaneum shows that among the foods eaten in Pompeii were dormice, snails, fish and sea urchins, chickens and eggs, olives, figs, grapes, pears, walnuts and beans.