The clock stopped for Pompeii on 23 August 79AD, the day Vesuvius blew its top and petrified the town. A storm of pumice stones and cinders hammered down, houses were rocked by the earth’s convulsions, and thick blankets of ash turned day into night before descending on the town and its citizens, burying them where they stood or lay, at once destroying them and preserving their remains for eternity. Extraordinary, painstaking excavation means that there is nowadays no better place to gain a feel for how life would have been lived 2,000 years ago. It require little imagination to picture the paved streets, marketplaces and grand houses as they were, for Pompeii is not a ruin, but the real thing, a town lost then reclaimed, dug up from under metres of soil, its citizens nowadays archaeologists and suitably awe-struck visitors. And all the while in the quiet distance Vesuvius looks on, giving, in Dickens’ phrase “the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun”.
The Greece-inspired buildings of Pompeii may amaze with their detail and fine condition, but it’s the people that provide the lasting, most powerful memories. Buried in fire and sealed in time, as the volcanic ash hardened it moulded itself to the deceased. The bodies decomposed, leaving behind hollow carapaces of hardened ash, extraordinary in their adeptness at evoking those final moments two millennia ago. People huddled together in shelter; an arm covering a face in protection; a man’s silent scream of terror – the expressions and postures paint a more vivid picture than a library of history books could ever manage. So much more than a ghoul’s gallery, seeing the city’s ancient inhabitants is immensely moving, and serves as a reminder that at its heart, the story of Pompeii is a very human tragedy.