In the year 79 of the Christian era the city of Pompeii was totally destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius and buried under ashes. The site of the ancient city was discovered in 1713 by some Italian peasants who were digging for a well. Excavations have been carried on down to the present time. About half of the old city has been dug up.
Because of the layers of ashes and pumice that covered Pompeii, the ruins were kept in a remarkable state of preservation and today give us our most valuable information concerning ancient Roman civilization.
Just outside the city gates stood a large and beautiful villa. It was between the city and the mountain. When this place was excavated, two skeletons were found close beside the garden gate. One was evidently that of the master of the house ; he had in his hand the key of the gate, and near him were about a hundred gold and silver coins. The other was evidently a slave and was stretched beside some silver vases.
Within the cellars of the house were discovered the skeletons of eighteen persons ; they had lain in those ashes for seventeen hundred years. The ashes, cemented together by dampness, have taken a perfect impression of everything on which they lay. So exact is this impression that even the texture of the cloth that once made a little girl’s dress can be plainly seen. The cloth was so very fine that we know she was not a slave. The impression of jewels worn on the neck and arms is distinct, and the jewels themselves were found beside the skeletons. There were two necklaces, one set with blue stones, and four rings containing beautiful gems.
The objects found in Pompeii have been carefully preserved. Articles of furniture and objects of art that could easily be moved, such as the statuettes often found in the gardens, were ordinarily taken to the museum in Naples ; a few things have been placed in the little museum at Pompeii. Now and then small sculptures have been left in a house exactly as they were found, but the necessity of keeping such houses locked, and of guarding them with especial care, has prevented the, general adoption of this method of preservation.
The frescoes that adorned the walls have been wonderfully preserved, and bits of them, exquisite in form and color, have occasionally been left in the houses where they were found. The walls were made of stucco, hard and smooth as marble, and then decorated with designs of graceful lines and rich, harmonious coloring.
Upon the side of one house is rudely scratched the Greek alphabet. It must have been made by a little fellow, for the letters are only about three feet above the ground. Two other walls are marked with quotations from Vergil and from Ovid, possibly written by children on their way to school.
The remains of Pompeii shed light on countless passages of Greek and Roman writers. Literature, however, ordinarily records only that which is exceptional or striking, while here we find the surroundings of life as a whole, the humblest details being presented to the eye. From the study of Pompeii, as from no other source outside the pages of classical writers, we come to understand the life of the ancient Roman.