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The Ruins of Pompeii and Its Art

Rome, Italy

The rich port of Pompeii was buried with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The excavated site gives a revealing look at a great Roman city and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples holds its countless art treasures.

Complete Video Script

[69, Hadrian's Villa, AD 118–138, Tivoli, near Rome] Under the Pax Romana, the Romans ruled an empire stretching from the Nile all the way to Britain. And it was laced together with an extraordinary network of roads. Travelers today can find remains of the empire throughout most of Europe. And, everywhere, you'll find the same features:

[70, Pompeii (near Naples), Pont du Gard (southern France), Arena (Arles, France), Roman Baths (Bath, England), toilets and temples (Ephesus, Turkey), monumental arch (Orange, France)] The same grid-planned streets, the aqueducts, Colosseum-inspired arenas, baths… public toilets, temples, monuments, and, on pedestals far and wide, a statue of the emperor.

[71] Pompeii was a typical Roman city in southern Italy with all those typical features — from forums and temples, to public baths and brothels.

[72] But with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in AD 79, life in Pompeii was stopped in its tracks. Tragic, I know, but for archaeologists, Pompeii was a shake-and-bake windfall. The excavated art and architecture of this once busy town offers an intimate look at the richness of ancient Roman life.

[73] The main square, or forum, was Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center. The Curia housed the government. It was built of no-nonsense brick and mortar, originally faced with a veneer of gleaming marble.

[74] The basilica, or law court, was nearby. The basilica floor plan — a rectangular space divided into a central nave and side aisles by two rows of columns — was ideal for a meeting hall.

[75, House of the Vettii, Pompeii] Remains of homes at Pompeii give a glimpse into how the wealthy lived and enjoyed their art. The House of the Vettii, the home of a rich merchant, shows the typical layout of a mansion. Its colonnaded inner courtyard — a formal garden with water flowing to give freshness — was ringed by colorfully frescoed rooms. Dining rooms were often richly decorated. Here, little cupids go about everyday life in Pompeii: harvesting crops, taking your knocks on a chariot, and enjoying the local wine.

[76] Water was abundant in this well-plumbed city. Fountains provided a social center at intersections. And a steady stream of water flushed the chariot rutted streets clean.

[76A] Rick: So why the stones in the street here?
Gaetano: Well there was always water flowing along the roads and washing the roads so that's why the sidewalk all over and the stepping stones.
Rick: So the pedestrians walk across and did not get wet?
Gaetano: Yes to the crossroad avoiding wet feet.
Rick: Very smart.

[77, most of the art treasures of Pompeii are at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples] Pompeii's artifacts show off the ancient city's love of art and the good life. These bronze statues, like so much of the art from Pompeii, are first century BC Roman copies of fourth century BC Greek originals. Resting Hermes — with his tired little heel wings — is taking a break… but it's clear, he'll be flying off again soon. This wine-loving woodland god, or satyr, singing and snapping his fingers to the beat, is clearly living for the moment — true to the Epicurean "seize the day" philosophy many Romans embraced and celebrated.

[78] Pompeii's many finely crafted mosaics reflect the sophistication and wealth of the city and its people. Culture, including music and theater, thrived at Pompeii. This mosaic takes us backstage just before curtain time… actors get dressed, instruments tuned, and the masks of comedy and tragedy are ready to go.

[79] This detailed and realistic mosaic shows street musicians boisterously entertaining those not quite up to a night at the theater.

[80] Venus, the goddess of love, was a Pompeii favorite. Statues are intimate and impressively realistic. The much copied Three Graces celebrated elegance, beauty, and a love of life — a reminder of how fleeting life is, and was on the fateful day nearly 2,000 years ago, when that volcano blew.