A City

As a physical anthropologist and head of the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate del Parco Archeologico di Pompei (Applied Research Laboratory of the Pompeii Archaeological Park), I am involved daily with the ancient people of Pompeii. With the aid of my colleagues in the laboratory, I coordinate the study of a variety of organic and inorganic materials: the findings of excavations in progress. An example is what recently emerged from the discovery – the most recent one that I have overseen – of the termopolio (thermopolium) of Regio V.3.I.

From my daily relationship with these materials, from the interpretation of the data and information they reveal as I study them, from the humanity that shines through in the skeletal remains from 2000 years ago, I have a strong sense that these very materials seem to express a necessity, a desire inherent in them: the need, the longing, to tell their story….

“We were a city – or rather, the inhabitants of an entire city – that during the Imperial period was wealthy and flourishing, a city near the coast that engaged actively in trade. Amphorae of wine and oil, fabrics, slaves… every kind of merchandise passed through the city of Pompeii. The composition of its inhabitants changed over time, as the Samnite and Etruscan substrates became mixed into the “DNA” of the Roman Empire [1], bringing with them languages, artistic forms, and cultures from the Mediterranean Basin as well as from other places. (Some of us have boasted that we have artefacts in our homes that came from what you would now call India!)

“The presence of the sea was keenly felt, not only due to its proximity to the city [2], but also because of the tastes and flavours associated with it, which were certainly not those you may be accustomed to today. One delicacy that was consumed in our kitchens and in the many termopolia – the equivalent of your snack bars – was garum [3], fish macerated a long time, brought from faraway places in amphorae and special containers. Today it would horrify you, but we recognised its quality and took delight in various recipes for it: there’s garum, and then there’s garum!

“How wonderful these flavours were, especially if they were accompanied by a dose of good wine! Not all the wine was the best, though: many proprietors doctored it with fava bean flour and egg white, to camouflage its taste [4]. It didn’t matter how beautiful the decoration of the counters was: true Pompeians knew where the good wine was and, conversely, where it was adulterated…

“We were a lot of people (a population of around 15,000 according to archaeologists’ estimates) [5]. Among us were free people and slaves, high-ranking citizens with gold bracelets, and those who barely scraped by. But we all filled the beautiful streets of our city, which even had a wastewater dispersal system, although… honestly… they weren’t always all that clean – so much so that the sidewalks had to be very high and the pedestrian crossings modified so that we wouldn’t soil our feet or, if we could afford any, our footwear. But, unlike other people of the time, we had lots of fountains that supplied us with water, and many patricians had water coming all the way into their houses. Some even used it to embellish their luxurious nymphaea, often decorated with shells or images of exotic animals.

“Speaking of animals… there were so many of them in the city! One could say that they, too, were its inhabitants. Small horses, donkeys, and mules were used for everyday tasks, such as transporting merchandise or turning the many millstones that supplied flour for our bakeries. They were so different from the splendid, well-fed steeds in the opulent suburban villas [6]. And there were dogs everywhere – many strays but also proud guard dogs or sheepdogs (just outside the city), or little dogs that became popular after Caesar returned from Egypt[7], tiny things that were in vogue at the time when… everything ended.

“Alas, yes… the city we were so proud of, where you could see the mountains and the sea from the beating heart of the Forum, disappeared. It was a day like any other, during the Flavian dynasty. That crusty, old military commander, Vespasian, had just died, and his son Titus had been on the throne a very short time. (He was an excellent emperor, even though he didn’t reign for long, barely two years – but there was no way for us to know that.) We had already had some early signs, under the reign of that madman Nero, seventeen years earlier – an earthquake that had seriously damaged the buildings. But the people here have always had to deal with such phenomena: all the masonry had already been repaired, even if restoration work could still be seen in some parts of the city.

“And then… at one o’clock in the afternoon [8], a huge roar, darkness, dust: an enormous cloud rose up from the mountain north of Pompeii, and soon afterward small stones began to fall from the sky, descending lightly but in such huge numbers! Those of us who covered our heads with whatever we could find and began to run out of the city, towards the sea, had a better chance of surviving.

“But those who decided to stay found no way to escape the worst.

“Many terrorised citizens sought refuge in their homes and died almost instantly, killed by the collapse of the roofs under the weight of the pumice. Others waited, trapped by the enormous blanket of ash that buried all the ground floors. It was eighteen hours of terror, an endless night. But at daybreak, there was a moment of respite. Everything seemed to be over, and anyone who could still leave home, through windows and over balconies, began to run through the unrecognisable streets of the city.

“This moment of calm didn’t last long. A short while later, one of the most terrible things nature can create came racing down from Vesuvius: you would call it a “pyroclastic flow”. For us, it was an extremely rapid and violent cloud that completely enveloped us. Nothing remained alive in the city.[9]

“Pompeii came to life again three centuries ago. Our bodies, whenever possible, are used to create the moulds for gesso casts that recreate our features as they were when we were alive, as well as our clothing and other belongings. They are the legacy of one the most impassioned archaeologists who have ever walked our planet [10]. When conditions do not allow the creation of a cast, loving hands gather us up and study us, and the data derived from our mortal remains enrich your knowledge of the past.

“Ours was a strange and terrible fate. However, when one sees the streets of our city full of life again and hears a thousand local and foreign dialects coming together in the Forum, it seems as though nothing has changed in Pompeii: it’s only living a second life, and we, too, are part of it.”


Valeria Amoretti is Head Anthropologist and Director of the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate del Parco Archeologico di Pompei (Applied Research Laboratory of the Pompeii Archaeological Park)



[1] Genetic analysis of the remains of the inhabitants of Pompeii is now under way in an agreement between the Archaeological Park of Pompeii and the Biology Department of the University of Florence. What is recounted in this tale is personal speculation, and any idea under study that is contained in it will be examined on the basis of actual results and objective evidence and will appear in scientific publications.

[2] The relationship between the city and the sea is one of the lines of research conducted by the geologist under contract with the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate, Vincenzo Amato.

[3] New, more detailed studies of garum are under way at the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate di Pompei, under the supervision of Chiara Corbino, archaeozoologist at the Archaeological Park, under contract with the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate.

[4] According to the recipe recorded in Apicius and Cato (Apic Ars 1.5; Cato, De Agr. 109), pulses, whole or ground, were used to doctor the colour and taste of the wine. Evidence of this practice was found in the termopolio of Regio V.3.I – completely excavated in 2020 – by Chiara Comegna, archaeobotanist and director of bibliographical research at the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate at the Archaeological Park.

[5] Initial estimates of 25,000 to 20,000 inhabitants have been lowered to 12,000 to 16,000 (L. Gallo, “Pompei: demografia di una città romana”, in P. G. Guzzo, M. Mastroroberto, A. D’Ambrosio (eds.) Storie da un’eruzione: Pompei Ercolano Oplontis (Milan: Electa, 2004), pp. 15-28.

[6] A review of the equids in Pompei is underway by Chiara Corbino with the collaboration of Chiara Comegna. A speech on this subject has just been presented at the 3rd ICAZ Working Group Meeting on the Zooarchaeology of the Roman Period Animals in the Roman Economy: “Production, supply, and trade within and beyond the Empire’s frontiers” (C.A. Corbino, C. Comegna, V. Amoretti, M. Osanna, Equine exploitation at Pompeii, AD 79).

[7] Derived from the studies by Chiara Corbino, still under way, of a small dog discovered near thermopolium RV.3.I.

[8] Chronology according to H. Sigurdsson, S. Carey, W. Cornell, T. Pescatore, “The Eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79”, in National Geographic Research (1985), 1, pp. 332–87; G. Luongo, A. Perrotta, C. Scarpati, “Impact of 70 AD Explosive Eruption on Pompeii I: Relations Amongst the Depositional Mechanisms of the Pyroclastic Products, the Framework of the Buildings and the Associated Destructive Events”, in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 126 (2003), pp. 201–23; G. Luongo, A. Perrotta, C. Scarpati, E. De Carolis, G. Patricelli, A. Ciarallo, “Impact of 79 AD Explosive Eruption on Pompeii II: Causes of Death of the Inhabitants Inferred by Stratigraphical and Areal Distribution of the Human Corpses”, in Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 126 (2003), pp. 169–200.

[9] The Archaeological Park has recently been able to avail itself of the services of a vulcanologist at the Laboratorio di Ricerche Applicate, Domenico Sparci, who is also involved in the precise enumeration of the samples arising from the volcanic deposits of 79 AD for the purpose of enhancing knowledge, preservation, and promotion of them.

[10] Cf. Massimo Osanna, “’Rapiti alla morte’. I primi calchi delle vittime di Pompei realizzati da Giuseppe Fiorelli”, in M. Osanna, R. Cioffi, A. Benedetto, L. Gallo (eds), Pompei e l’Europa. Atti del Convegno (Milan: Electa, 2016), pp. 144–61.