Pompeii and Urbanism

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A violent earthquake in 63 AD devastated the area near Naples in Italy and reportedly was a warning of the eventual devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius that occurred in 79 AD. I finally got to visit Pompeii in July 2019 after many years of curiosity and was quite amazed as a Town Planner about the scale of the site and the sophistication of the urban development. The ancient city was thought to have grown from an earlier settlement somewhere around the 6th century BC.

Nearly 2000 years ago the volcanic eruption buried Pompeii in ash and preserved the day to day life in time. Although organic matter had decayed in the intervening period the space left was able to be filled by the archaeologist to leave a cast of what was there 2000 years ago whether a person, an animal or similar.

The size of the archaeological dig is impressive some 60 hectares of the city has been excavated over about the last two hundred years. The elaborate hierarchy of east- west and north-south relatively wide roads is evident.

All was surrounded by city walls three kilometres in length. Visible in the roads are the ruts left in the cobble stones by horse and carts bringing fresh produce into Pompeii city all the time because of the obvious lack of refrigeration. The city was prosperous, vital, and bustling with pedestrians and traffic, full of hotels, bakeries, inns, post stages, shops, gracious public buildings, temples and private homes (from modest to elegant and luxurious).


A baker’s oven some 2000 years old

A rudimentary sewerage system existed as evidenced by the public toilets also a comprehensive system of plumbing to supply the city with fresh water both to private premises and a system of public fountains existed. These streets were in many cases identified by these fountains which were named individually.

It was evident that the city was clearly divided into districts or zones for residential areas, commercial areas and public and government functions. Close to the commercial parts of the city were apartments and smaller houses with courtyards but no gardens. Further away from the city center were the large villas for the wealth residents with large garden areas and associated slave quarters. In some of the more modest houses there where al fresco murals and tromp l’ oeil’s depicting garden scenes and columns to trick the eye into thinking the courtyard was actually an elaborate garden area.


Painted columns, alfresco paintings and a fountain to suggest a garden but actually a modest courtyard

In the commercial areas bakeries were evident with grinding wheels for grinding flour and ovens for baking. Other smaller shops had staircases where the owner and family lived above the shop. Particularly on corner sites hotels and inns existed selling drink and food from earth ware storage vats set within tiled and marble bench tops and using salt to preserve food. As with modern cities a brothel is inevitable with small cubical areas and signs promoting the variety of services offered once again the workers (slaves) lived in the level above.


How little some things change, this mosaic entrance reportedly reads ‘Beware the Dog’

In Summary

Even with the passage of 2000 years the ideas behind urbanism in many cases are similar to those evident in Pompeii, districts set aside for specific land uses and served by a hierarchy of regular spaced roads. An urban environment like ours provided with sewers and reticulated fresh water to provide a sanitary environment complete with baths and saunas. The prevalence of trade and commerce in a prosperous society from the Pompeii Basilica (stock exchange) to the hotels, inns, brothels, baths, bakeries and a range of shops all within designated districts. The public Forum and Temples were similarly placed in prominent locations. Then like in modern societies according to your wealth and status you lived modestly near the commercial areas above a shop, in an apartment or a modest house. If you were wealthy you lived in elegant splendour removed from the hustle and bustle surrounded by other similar spacious villas.