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16 July 2021

In recent months we have featured a series of virtual ‘walks’ around landscapes in the UK. Today we turn our attention overseas, and explore the Bay of Naples and the archaeological sites that sit in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which erupted most famously in 79 AD.

"Naples From Sir William Hamilton's Villa 1780-1782" by John Warwick Smith

The modern town of Pompei sits over the archaeological site of ancient Pompeii, and our walk begins at the Piazza Anfiteatro entrance on the Via Roma. From here, we are greeted by the impressive amphitheatre, the earliest surviving stone amphitheatre in the world, built in the 70s BC. It had the capacity for 20,000 spectators, an impressively large number especially when considering that Rome's Colosseum was only about twice the size (accommodating roughly 50,000 people). A fresco found in a nearby house shows the riot which happened at the Pompeian amphitheatre in 59 BC, in which we can see the external staircases and the awning which was put up to shade spectators.

Fresco showing the riot at the Pompeian amphitheatre in 59 BC, from the House of Actius Anicetus
Plan of Pompeii with our route marked in red
Continuing forwards we come to one of Pompeii's main streets, the Via dell’Abbondanza. This long, straight road will takes us all the way along to the forum, passing a number of notable houses. There is the large Estate of Julia Felix, which featured a bath house, rental apartments, bars, and a private dwelling. Just nearby is the House of Octavius Quartio. The house itself is fairly small, but the long garden is the highlight of this plot, with intricate water features creating a soothing green oasis.
Coming to the crossroads where the Via dell’ Abbondanza meets the Via Stabiana, we step across the paving stones and see the elegant and well-preserved Temple of Isis. The Egyptian goddess was well-known in Roman religious life, though her cult was for initiates only. This temple was a highlight for grand tourists as it was one of the first structures to be excavated, and even inspired Mozart with the themes for The Magic Flute after his visit in 1769.
View of the Forum looking north at the Temple to the Capitoline Triad
A few streets away, we come at last to the Forum, the heart of all Roman settlements. At the northern end stands the temple to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), which in its ruined state gives a dramatic view of Vesuvius in the background. Most important civic buildings are located around the forum, such as the macellum (marketplace), but there are other structures whose function is unclear. The purpose of the largest building on the Forum, the Eumachia building, is unknown. Named after the Pompeian priestess who sponsored its construction, it demonstrates one of the ways in which Roman women could influence life in a male-dominated society.
Leaving the forum and heading north, we pass by the Forum Baths (a crucial part of Roman society) and reach Regio VI, where a number of famous large houses can be found. There is the grand House of the Faun, named for the dancing faun statue found in the atrium, and the House of the Tragic Poet, known for its mosaic warning, “Cave Canem” – beware of the dog. Much of this material is now housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum.
The final location on our walk is at the extreme north-western end of the town. This is the famous Villa of the Mysteries, a property best-known for the room with bright, fresco-covered walls, usually thought to depict the secret Mysteries of the Bacchic cult. Much of what we see today is a result of early 20th Century restoration, and research suggests it is not a completely accurate picture of what the villa owners would have seen. However, it gives a sense of the vibrancy of Pompeian life, certainly at the richer end of the scale.
The frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries
There are so many aspects of Pompeian life our route hasn't explored – bath houses, shops and bars, temples, industries, the theatre, the cemeteries. Although saying that Pompeii and its surrounding sites are “frozen in time” is an over-simplification, the legacy of Vesuvius' most famous eruption in the autumn of 79 AD offers a fantastic window into Roman life. About a quarter of ancient Pompeii is still unexcavated, but more is still being discovered, such as the ceremonial chariot uncovered earlier this year. At Herculaneum, the composition of the volcanic material is different to that at Pompeii, and so has allowed for the preservation of delicate substances like wood. If you would like to come and see more for yourself, why not join our tour to the region next spring?
'Pompeii with Herculaneum' 2022 tour details
'Naples from Sir William Hamilton's Villa, 1780-1782', by John Warwick Smith by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash 
Plan of Pompeii by WolfgangRieger is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons / Edited from original
Fresco showing the riot in the amphitheatre at Pompeii by Carole Raddato is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr 
Garden of the House of Octavius Quartio by Abxbay is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Garden in the Estate of Julia Felix © Isabel Sudbury
View of Pompeian streets © Isabel Sudbury
View of the Forum by Denise Jones on Unsplash / Cropped from original
Temple of Isis by Carole Raddato is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr 
Statue of Eumachia by virtusincertus is licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
Cave Canem mosaic by Eufrosine is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Villa of the Mysteries fresco by Raffaele Pagani is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Garum mosaic by Claus Ableiter is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Fresco from a themopolium © Isabel Sudbury
Carbonised wood from Herculaneum © Isabel Sudbury

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