The city of Troy is, since Schliemann located it during the nineteenth century near the Turkish city of Hüserlik, a real city, where archaelogists try to unravel the mysteries of its long and unlucky existence. But until then it was, above all, the setting of a great fantasy that impregnated all of Western literature and art, from Homer to the present day. The best of the epic tradition was forged with it and poets, playwrights, historians and novelists all made use of it; the city is the subject of none too few artistic recreations and its heros have inspired and continue to inspire painters, sculptors and musicians of any time and any place. Troy ultimately led to the birth of Rome (and to a large extent this explains its survival in the Western imagination), so that one of the longest and most prolific paths from our past leads us to that imaginary Troy that becomes increasingly truer to us.
Since the Mycenaean period, Delphi was at the same time a small city and a religious center. In the beginning it was its urban character what dominated, with walls, remains of houses and necropolis. Very few remains suggest that at that time there was a superior cultural activity in comparison with other cities, and yet, there are reasons to think that immediately under the walls and next to a fountain -the Casotide- there could have been already a fortune teller living there. Later, after some centuries from which we know very little, a sanctuary for Apollo was installed there and appropriated the oracle that became an essential part of the cult. Since then, the population lost relevance due to the religious nature of the place: without doubt it provided the priests and the fortune teller -the Delphi Pythia-, but the sanctuary obtained a pan-hellenic character, opened to all Greeks, and dominated the region restricting the development of a real independent polis next to it. Thus what is needed is to study the sanctuary, walk through it, visit its main monuments, and above all, get closer this curious phenomenon of divine possession that made the woman emitting the oracles go into ecstasy.
For the millions of tourists that visit Pompeii every year, as well as for the general public, this city is the paradigm of a Roman city. But in many occasions things are not what they seem, and in this case this topic is only partially correct. Our aim today is to trace the basic elements of the city and present the deep problems that its preservation implies. Pompeii had an extension of almost 70 hectares, of which only 60% have been dug so far. The methods applied have dramatically changed since the mid 18th century when digging began shortly after its discovery. Originally, the aim was finding artistic objects to add to royal collections, and buildings were covered again once finished. Later, the buildings were left exposed although the main aim was still finding valuable pieces. Even the mural paintings and mosaics were removed from the walls and transferred to the Napoli Museum. It was only after the unification of Italy and the appointment of Fiorelli as responsible around 1860 that we can start talking about applying an excavation method, and what is more important, the existence of appropriate documentation for that time. Until then, things had not been done correctly and a lot of information was lost. For example, it is currently unknown from where many of numerous smaller pieces were excavated (coins, ceramics, glass, small sculptures, metal tools, etc.), and many errors can be detected in the existing files of the Napoli Museum.
At the time of the famous eruption in AD 79, Pompeii was a Roman city and its citizens spoke and wrote in Latin, its architecture and funerary traditions followed the Roman pattern, and the way of life was that of any other Italian coast city of the time. Nevertheless, this situation was generated through a particularly traumatic process hardly 160 years before, in 80 BC, when Rome decided to accommodate there a colony of veteran romans, the Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum, as a reward to old legionaries, and on the long run as a punishment to the city, which had shown a strong resistance during the Social War and had also supported Mario on his civil conflict with Sila, who ultimately turned out victorious. Thus, the creation of the colony was punitive measure by all means and implied a rough transformation of Pompeii into a Roman city. The new settlers substituted the local elites in the government and imposed their laws, language and Roman institutions. Those newly arrived took over properties and occupied the houses of the original inhabitants, which were relegated for decades in all aspects, especially the political life.
Due to all of this, the city that we now contemplate does not fit into the stereotypes of a typical Roman city, and is the final result of the Roman control over an indigenous settlement, Samnite in this case, which does not imply in any way that Roman newcomers arrived with a superior level of urban culture. In any case it would be the opposite, as the original Pompeii was comparable to other urban centres on the Hellenistic orbit.
The complex urban plot of both the hippodamic (grid plan) neighbourhoods and those with a more irregular plan, have their origin in the time of Samnites, or archaic period. The same is true for most of the buildings and sanctuaries, which only suffered minor modifications and adaptations upon the arrival of the Romans. The city wall, including some remodelling, also dates back to the pre-Roman period and were actually built as a defense from Romans.
Most of the housing basic lines date from decades previous to the Roman arrival too. In many houses the roman phase basically includes parietal and musivaria decoration, as well as some restorations and internal partitions, always within the original structures of the previous period. Thus, before being buried by the Vesuvius, Pompeii was essentially a Samnite city that maintained the key structure built before the arrival of the Romans. The heterogeneity of its urban plan is very different from the traditional grid plan we find in cities funded by the Romans.
A city at work
Before the eruption, in AD 62, another catastrophe had hit the city: a powerful earthquake. A large part of the damage had not been fixed yet when 17 years later the volcano became active. It is possible to observe the effect of the strong seismic event in many places at structural and functional level. Many of the public buildings, especially the larger ones, had not been reconstructed yet, for example the ancient Doric Temple and the Basilica. Others, like the Isis Temple, were completely restored thanks to generous private contributions. Some of the most important buildings were initiated over old housing remains, but were left unfinished. This is the case of the new and large Central Baths. In many houses the restoration of seismic damages can be observed. Many walls were repaired and reinforced, or built from scratch using bricks, opus latericium, which is the main indicator of all the restorations made following the earthquake. In parallel, many of the parietal decorations were substituted, a fact that explains the predominance of the IV style that was typical in this time. There are numerous discoveries associated to all these restoration works, particularly in plasterwork, which where terminated by the fierce eruption of the Vesuvius. The collateral effects of the previous earthquake also explain changes in the use of some spaces that were initially devoted to housing, but that at the time of the eruption were being used for productive tasks with presses and other tools associated to the transformation of food. The walling of the entrances to external tabernae is also common, which probably implies that they had been sold after the earthquake, as originally, the owners of the house were the ones managing these commercial buildings. These forced restorations probably indicate the need to obtain economic benefits by people of Pompeii going through tough times after loosing their houses to the earthquake.
Pompeii is traditionally considered the best preserved Roman city of our days, and although there are good reasons to agree it is full of nuance based on the precarious state of many of the city houses at the moment of the eruption. The strict definition of the reality of Pompeii is that it is Samnite urban centre with the external appearance of a Roman city. Regarding the state of preservation, it is important to highlight that the effects of the earthquake suffered before the eruption are very visible, and thus we are contemplating a city in the process of being rebuilt.
The survival of Pompeii
Currently, regardless of what touristic guides may say, most of the 800 Roman houses, including important ones, are not open to the public. There is still an important issue of safety regarding the deterioration of the buildings, together with security and accessibility problems. The large extension of Pompeii, the rainy and humid climate, the proliferation of vegetation, and the exposure to weather due to the lack of roofs, as well as earthquakes, all come together to create a very complex framework for the future preservation of this extraordinary place. On top of this, the anthropic action is making things even worse. Every year around two million tourists invade the city and cause, voluntarily or not, the deterioration of the streets, walls and pavements of those few houses open to the public. As matter of fact, in recent times we have witnessed the accelerated effect of this in the collapse of several facades in Via dell’Abbondanza, a street always busy with tourists, which is the reason why the news had certain transcendence. This situation is not new, and if it made the headlines is only because it was impossible to hide to the public. On top of that, this event is probably also related to works currently being done by the actual administration. Since a few years a large part of the city has remained closed for safety reasons.
It is only now that some extraordinary measures are being taken thanks to the arrival of European funds. There has always been quite a tradition of Italian and foreign archaeological research in Pompeii, but not so much of preservation and protection, activities that should be strongly promoted. All efforts in this line will always be too few to confront this huge challenge.