Pompeii: The Exhibition Now Open

History of Pompeii


Pompeii was a cultured and vibrant city rich in architecture, complex infrastructures, and exquisite works of art, and was home to 25,000 inhabitants. Its location also allowed for it to become a rich agricultural center, a vital seaport, and a booming commercial hub. The city hosted theatrical and sporting events and built luxurious public baths. Wealthy Roman visitors came to enjoy the lavish Mediterranean lifestyle that Pompeii offered.

Pompeii map

Pompeii and other cities affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The black cloud represents the general distribution of ash and cinder. Modern coast lines are shown.


The ancient city of Pompeii was situated in southern Italy’s west coast region of Campania, near the bay of Naples. Today, the ruins of Pompeii are located inland near the modern suburban town of Pompei (now written with one 'i').


62 A.D. – An earthquake rattled Pompeii but citizens rebuilt the city not suspecting the looming disaster. They were largely unaware of the mighty power of Mount Vesuvius.

August 24, 79 A.D. – Mount Vesuvius erupted in the morning and the surrounding landscape had been changed forever. Within a span of 24 hours, Pompeii was completely buried under 12 feet of ash and stone, the river and port were gone, and Vesuvius was a crater.

1709-1711 – A farmer, sinking a well, struck Herculaneum’s ancient theater, in which he found ancient marble sculptures. An Austrian general acquired the land, had deep tunnels dug and for two years plundered the site for antiquities.

1760 - The first to attempt a methodical approach at Pompeii was German art historian, J.J. Winckelmann, considered the father of archaeology. He catalogued Pompeian loot, and because the city was buried under a shallow layer of lightweight pyroclastic matter, speedy excavation was both possible and a priority to limit the number of thefts.

1860-1875 - The archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of excavations at Pompeii for a newly unified Italy, introduced innovative excavation methods. From hollows left by decaying organic matter he made plaster casts that reconstruct bodies of dead people, and also those of animals and trees.

1997 – Pompeii declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO

2010 – National Archaeological Museum of Naples opened a new wing, dedicated to the display of paintings from the Vesuvian sites. Later that year, torrential rains reduced two houses in Pompeii to rubble.

Present day – Pompeii takes up a quarter of a square mile and has seen over 25 million visitors. Large-scale excavation has now ceased, and one-third of the city remains underground. Archaeologists oppose undertaking fresh excavations while they focus on conserving existing buildings and re-examining and understanding earlier discoveries.

Pliny the Younger


Pliny the Younger – The eruption of Vesuvius was watched from afar by an 18-year-old named Pliny the Younger who was visiting his uncle, Pliny the Elder, in the town of Misenum (about 20 miles away from Pompeii, across the Bay of Naples). His letters provide the only primary source we have for the disaster:

depiction of Vesuvius' eruption

A depiction of Mt. Vesuvius erupting based on Pliny the Younger’s letters

It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising; its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided...In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.

My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready...He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone...Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain…

Pliny the Elder - A general in the Roman navy, he was stationed at Misenum in active command of the fleet. He set sail across the Bay of Naples to rescue people from the eruption and then returned back to Misenum with survivors. Based on his nephews letters, he died a couple days after his return most likely due to breathing complications caused by the inhalation of smoke and thick ash. From Pliny the Younger's letters:

By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out…I assume that his breathing was impeded by the dense fumes, which blocked his windpipe— for it was constitutionally weak and narrow, and often inflamed.