POMPEII touches everyone on both a universal and personal level. One senses that incalculable numbers of visitors - or looters, at one time, or even the ancient original owners, going back to probe - have felt here, ``But for the grace of God, there go I.'' Destroyed by Vesuvius in the same eruption which also obliterated Herculaneum, it lives on through its excavations and artifacts, its strange, eerie warnings. This region at the foot of the still active, menacing volcano is thickly populated, and the local people know well what could happen still. It has erupted over 50 times since the Roman period, but even now 14 towns are to be found on its slopes, places rebuilt many times. Family ties, the beauty of the area, the bounty of its lava-enriched soil, weigh against uncertain perils - though the risk is great.
Vesuvius is part of our history, and from time to time arousing particular attention. This is true at the moment, when the science of archaeology is being enhanced and refined by the use of computers. An exhibit exemplifying this is currently on display in New York City, mounted by the Italian Ministry of Culture, IBM Corporation, and other august bodies. It shows maps of the town, computerized pictures of the villas, and real artifacts - newly found bronzes, statues, jewelry, glass, and ceramics. There are some frescoes and mosaics, and a cast (in resin) of one of the victims. Much of the show is presented by ingenious mechanical devices.
Pompeii was a walled town with gates, theaters, a colosseum seating 20,000 people, and handsome villas, as well as a fine, imposing forum. It was an emporium, a place to trade wine and oil, fish, and local products. A few miles up the coast Herculaneum was more elegant, more of a resort for rich Romans and Neapolitans. After Pompeians made initial efforts to recover some of their possessions from the 15 feet of ash, gravel, and mud covering them, the city was abandoned, almost lost and forgotten, till the 18th century, as was Herculaneum.
Those who left Pompeii quickly survived; the rest suffocated. Lulled into a false sense of security as they watched a north wind blowing ashes toward the city, Pompeians were - after 18 hours - overwhelmed by a ``surge'' from the volcano that destroyed Herculaneum in about five minutes, burying it in what resulted in hard stone, very laborious to dig through. This took place on Aug. 24, AD 79, but the objects seen today in New York seem so fresh, perfect, and beautiful (protected as they have been by ash or stone) that they startle us. Though the exhibit is a marvel in its way, it seems a rather third-hand portrayal; computers are not gifted in the way of atmosphere.
I saw Pompeii in the spring of 1938, a year and a half before World War II broke out, when I was on my way back to China, sailing from Genoa on the Italian Lloyd Triestino liner SS Victoria, a beautiful new ship. (As war approached she was stripped of her fine civilian trappings and became a man-of-war, ranging the Mediterranean, but this lay ahead.) It was not till I embarked that I realized, to my delight, that Naples was a port of call on this journey, and that, arriving there the next day, it would be possible to visit Pompeii.
I had been obliged to purchase my ticket quickly, and had not particularly noticed where we were stopping - it was the usual trip via the Suez Canal to the Far East, and, comparatively speaking, not as expensive as most of them, if you braved humble accommodations. I had been in London on a short leave. It had been awarded to me because I had been very active in those first months of the Japanese war which broke out in China in 1937, when I was in Nanjing, writing and publishing for the University of Nanjing and the United States government. The quickest and cheapest way to get from Shanghai to London then was over Siberia; this I had done, and expected to use the same route on my return, but it was impossible. The Russians closed the frontier after Hitler marched into Austria; I had to go back via Suez.
People did not go everywhere, anyhow, then as now, and I was rather dismayed at what might lie before me on this voyage, but my apprehensions were baseless. Italy's pride in her so-far successful Ethiopian campaign, her nationalistic elation, meant that even a third-class passage was extremely comfortable and clean, with good food. More important, for me, was the fact that this class was full of British officers going back to Bombay after a short leave at home. Most of them were in the Royal Air Force; the rest belonged to various British or Indian regiments stationed in India. My fears were at once allayed; there was to be plenty of good company.
The Bay of Naples was shrouded in fog and rain, surprisingly, but a bus load of travelers started off for the hinterland, obliged to stop at a cameo shop which had laid its snares for visitors. There was no evidence of tourists, no queues, no tickets, no crowds. The Victoria contingent were only warned against getting mixed up with the only other lot of people bound for Pompeii, who were from the North German Lloyd Gripsholm, another ship likewise in the harbor and bound for the Orient. We were careful; no one wanted to get stuck on the wrong ship.
The cameo shop behind us, we pressed on toward Pompeii as the sun came out, strongly, out of a hot, pale sky. The town used to lie on the water but the eruption pushed it back about a mile from the coast, raising the sea beach. We went through the deep gate, seeing the plaster casts of two victims lying nearby, and went on to the forum with its huge stones, the tall columns casting their black shadows on the pitted hollows. It was all silent, nearly deserted. The few villas then excavated contained the familiar frescoes, with their rich colors and floral sweetness. There were no artifacts about; these were away in museums. We had Pompeii herself.
Back in Naples, one of the many officers I had just met darted away to return with a huge bouquet of long-stemmed yellow roses for me, creamy yellow, edged with pink, a true Neopolitan gesture, though from a Scot. I used to take them down every night from my cabin to the big table all these martial figures and I shared. The flowers were so strong and perfect they lasted well into the Red Sea.
Afterward we would all go up on the deck, leaning on the rails over the black water, with its white foam, under the stars, and ponder the coming conflict, as we were all sure it would soon be upon us. A few years later many of these men would have fallen; everyone was scattered. But Pompeii is there, fixed, and in my memory, equally vivid, my yellow roses.