Ancient Pompeii - a Roman feast of history

You don't have to be an archaeologist or even a scholar of things ancient and Roman to find Pompeii a place of compelling interest. To any visitor, it is fascinatingly compounded of classical mystique, startling familiarities, and romantic history.

Although all the local signposts call it simply the ''Scavi'' - the ''excavations'' - its 155 acres (about three-quarters of which has been excavated so far) certainly amount to a place; it is not just a site.

Today, just as its last inhabitants did 1,904 years ago, you can walk along Pompeii's streets, paved with wheel-rutted stones of hard gray lava; you can cross them on massive steppingstones; you can peer into the restored remains of shop windows, bakeries, laundries, inns, eating places, and, above all, gaze and even walk through the front doors of a large number of private houses. You can stroll around this town's larger public areas, too: its main rectangular forum; and its older, tree-shaded ''triangular forum.''

You can sit on the stone tiers of its large theater and its small theater (the teatro piccolo) trying to imagine the entertainments served up there for the Pompeiians, while simultaneously you breathe in the scent of the wild fennel that today seeds itself in the cracks between the old stones. You can stand in the great amphitheater at the southeast end of the town and evoke the roar of a crowd ferociously involved in some gladiatorial contest or savage animal conflict. Built in 80 BC, this is the oldest known amphitheater in the world. You can puzzle over the strange religious cults, beliefs, superstitions, propitiations, and initiations evidenced in various temples, shrines, and wall paintings throughout the city.

You can trace the complex procedures followed by the citizens of this Campanian town when they used the public thermae, or baths - which they did a great deal. The baths at Pompeii offer much more information about Roman bathing practices than those, for instance, at Rome itself. You can explore the halls, dining rooms, and gardens of private houses, ranging from poor and small to large and imposing, enjoying mosaics, paintings, colonnades, fountains.

There is no typical Pompeiian house, although most are one-family dwellings and had two stories. Apartment buildings, like those in Rome and Ostia Antica, have not been discovered in Pompeii. Some of the finest houses are, in fact, pre-Roman (before 89 BC). Before the Romans, this originally Oscan town was subjected to waves of Greeks, Samnites, and Etruscans.

It is impossible at any other archaeological site to get nearer to the feel and detail of the everyday life of quite ordinary, middle-class people in a busy provincial town. For the unique state of Pompeii we have one surprisingly unassuming geological phenomenon to thank. And that, as you stand in the forum looking northward, is silhouetted distantly against the sky: It is, of course, Vesuvius, the volcano.

On the 24th of August, AD 79, this apparently quiet ash heap blew up and rapidly buried Pompeii in lapilli (igneous fragments) and ashes four to six meters deep. It destroyed the town - but it also preserved it.

What is so difficult to conceive is that the whole of Pompeii - all these walls and streets - was not only buried, but, for centuries, simply forgotten.

Throughout the middle ages, and, in fact, until the 18th century (despite a certain amount of speculation by the renaissance humanists), the whereabouts of ancient Pompeii was unknown, and its state of preservation beneath the fertile Campanian countryside went completely unsuspected.

Present-day archaeologists are justifiably impolite about their early predecessors at Pompeii. They blame them for destroying much of the evidence they uncovered, because of an overriding enthusiasm for collecting treasures to be displayed in wealthy houses, and, finally, in museums. The national archaeological museum in Naples has become an essential part of getting to know Pompeii, because so many of the finest paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and objects have ended up there.

In 1861 the first excavator determined to preserve what he found in a state as close as possible to AD 79 appeared at Pompeii. His name was Fiorelli. He looked for information in these ruins and was not merely interested in retrieving precious objects.

Today's visitors (and scholars) owe him a lot. He kept a diary of his excavations. He cleared away the heaps of rubble thrown up by the workers and, systematically, whole streets began to emerge, lined by insulae, or blocks of houses. The ancient town was once again seeing the Italian sun. Oil jars, marble tables, basins, fountains, and altars were allowed to remain in situ on principle. And mural paintings were left on the walls they had decorated for the pleasure (sometimes, to us, questionable) of Pompeiians so many centuries before. Fiorelli also originated the inventive technique of ''casting'' the spaces left in the hardened lapilli by the unfortunate human (and canine) victims of the ''fiery breath of the haughty mountain,'' as the poet Leopardi put it. You used to be able to see some of these casts in the site museum at Pompeii. But this facility has been closed to the public now for a number of years, because, according to one Pompeii expert, it is so crowded with objects.

Instead, the visitor encounters the occasional ''corpse'' in one of the houses, or the forum baths - Moore-like fallen warriors in glass cases.

But today the overwhelming feeling of Pompeii is of its life rather than its extinction.

If it truly had 20,000 inhabitants, the living quarters for all but the rich must have been crammed. It is a compact town. At no point was anyone more than 10 minutes' walk from the green countryside that surrounded its walls.

It was a mainly self-sufficient town, full of small businesses. By AD 79 it had a rising middle class, with many of the older ''gentry'' moving out to the country. Some of the fine houses were also being used for business. The main street, running eastward from the forum, was a great business street. (This has been nicknamed the Via dell'Abbondanza, though every street and house name in Pompeii is pure invention.)

Today's visitor unquestionably needs a guidebook with a map. He will be lost without it. Hawkers of them are keen to oblige at the usual entrance, the Porta Marina. (Its name reminds one that Pompeii was a port and much closer to the sea than it is today.) A number of shops also sell guidebooks. ''Pompeii Two Thousand Years Ago,'' by A.C. Carpicei, is as full and useful as any. It also offers reconstruction drawings of the ancient town. The neater ''How to Visit Pompeii'' (published by the Pompeian Tourist Council) is also good, and has a small, clear map.

One warning, however: What none of the guidebooks tell you is that there was an earthquake in 1980, and not only do wooden props and scaffolding abound everywhere still, but a large central area of houses and shops has been closed to the public since then because it is considered unsafe.

If you are simply wanting a quick general impression of Pompeii, the no-entry signs will probably not trouble you. There is plenty to see in a day, or even two days. But if you have set your heart on seeing a particular building, written application must be made three to four weeks before you arrive to Sovrimtendente Archaeologico, Pompeii, Napoli, Italy.

Although the authorities told me they hoped to have this closed area reopened by this summer, my own doubts were confirmed by a British expert on Pompeii. He praised their eagerness, but thought they were perhaps overoptimistic.

There are also (permanently) a large number of houses with locked iron gates, presenting another problem to eager tourists. These cannot be entered unattended. There are many guards, with keys, parading the streets, and they can sometimes be persuaded to let you in. At other times they pronounce the house in question simply shut, adding with some firmness the word sempre, which may ambiguously translate as either ''always'' or ''still.'' In this event one proceeds to the office of the direzione, opposite the self-service restaurant just north of the forum. Here, to a certain extent, a mixture of charm, chat, and persistence can sometimes pry open closed doors. It worked twice for me - but there were still many houses frustratingly closed.

All the same, there are plenty of houses that are open. My own favorites include the superb House of the Vettii, the House of the Faun, the forum baths, and the House of the Labyrinth.

Here the garden has recently been planted with a labyrinth of box hedges. The gardens everywhere are worth watching out for. In the past 30 years there has been much work done on the gardens at Pompeii - by Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, who has produced a remarkable book on the subject - and it is clear that plants were a major preoccupation of the inhabitants. Some delightful mosaics can be seen through locked iron gates, so don't fail to look. You must not, for instance, miss the dog in the House of the Tragic Poet, even though this house is closed.

The Villa of the Mysteries, however, is open, and is well worth the walk outside the town wall. You go through the fine northwest gate, the Porta Ercolano, and down the romantically ruinous ''Street of the Tombs,'' past the (closed, sempre) Villa of Diomede, and along a street bordered with orange trees.

The amazingly preserved, hauntingly strange wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries make an enigmatic and perhaps fitting climax to a visit to Pompeii. But I found myself wandering back to savor again the unique atmospherics of the town: its air of neglect and restoration; its stirring contact with the remote past. Here is an entire town of ruins that appealed irresistibly to the 19th-century Romantic imagination - a spirit not completely lost in 1984.

It is a simple pleasure to tread those streets of massive, uneven stone - for which the tourist undoubtedly needs very practical footwear. As the notice at the entrance puts it, with all the freshness of direct translation: ''. . . The ancient environment is in fact uncomfortable and ruined beyond all measures of safety.''

Just so. But that is exactly what an ancient environment should be.

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