When traveling to southern Italy, Pompeii should be a place you need to go to see the World Heritage archaeological wonder, as it is nothing short of spectacular.
Founded in the 6-7th century B.C., by the time of the eruption Pompeii was a booming and advanced Roman city. In 79 A.D. it was buried under ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted. Due to the sudden eruption, the city has been well preserved as it once was featuring streets, houses, shops, and tales of how the Pompeians once lived.
I was surprised at how big it is and what a marvel it is to explore. Most don’t realize that you can spend days at Pompeii, but most people tour in a few hours, so you end up missing a lot. This list is to help ensure you see the highlights, provide some fun tips and hints so you can make the most out of your visit to Pompeii.
When most people think about Italy, the Coliseum in Rome I am sure it comes to the top of your mind. In fact, amphitheaters represent the most iconic buildings in the Roman world, so that is not surprising. The Amphitheater in Pompeii is also not to miss.
According to many studies, it is the oldest masonry amphitheater that still exists as it was built 150 years before the Coliseum. Although it is not as intricate or large as the Coliseum because there are no underground tunnels, the arena could still accommodate about 20,000 spectators. The Amphitheater was used for entertainment in which the crowds would watch re-enacted military battles, gladiator combats, and “venationes” (hunting and killing of wild animals).
It is possible to enter the arena but it is no longer allowed to climb to the top, for safety and conservation reasons.
Hint: Around the parapet, a wall separating the arena from the seating area, there are some inscriptions in Latin. They are the names of the magistrates who financed the construction of the seats (a bit like today, when in exchange for a monetary donation you maybe you are thanked with a plaque!)
Tip: Test the acoustics of this building. Try to clap your hands from any point of the arena, even better if in the center, and hear the echo of the sound. If there is no one around, just whisper to be heard from one end to the other.
THE NECROPOLI OF PORTA NOCERA
There is an eerie sense of fascination in this cemetery.
You will see some of the burial monuments are quite elaborate; this shows how dynamic Roman society was.
A Roman name, unlike today, can give a lot of information about the person and his/her social status. Many tombs of the Porta Nocera necropolis belonged to people whose name ended with “L” which is an abbreviation for Libertus, a freedman or former slave. Some slaves who were freed from their owner-managed to climb social steps accumulating wealth becoming self-made men.
Hint: Look for the tomb of P. Vesonius Phileros, a freedman. Under the plaque with the names of the deceased, there is another with a very interesting warning: “Stranger delay a brief moment if it’s not troublesome and learn what to avoid. ‘This’ man who I had thought was a friend of mine, I am forsaking.
A case was maliciously brought against me, I was charged. Thanks to the Gods and to my innocence, I was freed of all the hassle. May this one who misrepresented our affairs, never be received by the household gods or by the Gods below.”
What a tale of friendship, betrayal, and revenge that Phileros took to his grave, literally!
Tip: The Porta Nocera necropolis is the only place where you can admire authentic Pompeian sculptures. Prior to the excavation starting in 1954, most of the statues were taken to the Archaeological Museum of Napoli and almost all those visible at Pompeii are replicas.
HOUSE OF THE VETTII
The House of the Vettii belonged to two brothers, A. Vettius Restitutus and A. Vettius Convivia (Vettii is their surname), former freedmen. Two bronze seals were located in the front hall, in which scholars determined this was their residence. The Vettii brothers became rich due to trade. The house is one of the largest at Pompeii as it spans almost an entire section of a block.
As soon as you step in, on the right side of the door, the fresco of the god Priapus in the act of weighing his phallus seems to suggest “good health is worth its weight in gold”. In Roman history a phallus symbol is not rude, it is considered a lucky symbol of fertility and prosperity, By the way, it’s not the only one you will see in the house, nor throughout Pompeii.
Hint: Stay in the doorway and now look to your wall on the left. There is a little ancient graffiti carved on it. Possibly, in that same house, in a specific room with erotic paintings (unfortunately it is not open to the public) a lady called Eutychis was sold as a prostitute. The graffiti advertised her as a lady with “moribus bellis” (good manners), nonetheless sold for a very cheap price; two assis (a cup of cheap wine).
Two safes (strongbox) are still visible in the entrance and all the walls are painted with scenes of cupids.
Not to be missed is the exedra, a room for gatherings, to the north-east of the house with murals that display various myths including that of Dedalo and Pasiphae.
Pasiphae, Queen of Crete and wife of Minos, was cursed by Poseidon as she fell in love with a white bull. To be able to mate with the animal Pasiphae asked for Daedalus to help her building a wooden cow. This is where the mythical Minotaur half bull and half man is from.
Tip: Before starting the visit, check the opening hours of the house. Pompeii houses open in rotation and can often be temporarily closed for restoration or maintenance.
If you are concerned about it being explicit, it really is not, especially in today’s standards.
Take a good look at the murals. Notice the women have different skin colors, perhaps to show the various ethnicities available to solicit.
Note the beds have comfortable mattresses and nice wooden frames when in reality the brothel beds were made of stone. A bit of misleading advertising!
Unfortunately, you will not be able to go into the rooms, but if you take a look you will be able to see ancient graffiti which is pretty eloquent of the activities that took place there.
In the brothel there is a mural of Priapus (with two phalluses this time), to wish economic prosperity, definitely not “fertility”!
Hint: Before leaving, look beyond the small wall that you will find yourself facing on the way out, there is a reconstruction of a latrine (toilets).
Tip: It does seem to be a top choice for many visiting, so it can be crowded and there can be a wait. So go first thing, hope for a short line or you can skip it.
PORTA VESUVIO (Vesuvius Gate)
Located in the northern part of Pompeii and hardly ever visited by tourists, in fact, tour groups don’t go there at all.
It was one of the entrance gates to the ancient city. The defense walls where the holes are were caused by catapults of Silla (the Roman general who besieged and conquered Pompeii during the Social War in 89 B.C. is still evident.
Outside the walls, there are tombs, including one of a 22-year-old named Vestorius Priscus, an Aedil, elected official. The inscription states that the city paid 2000 sesterces (Roman coin) toward the funeral costs.
Hint: On the inner walls there are murals. You can’t see them from the outside, but if you stretch your arm over the wall and take a picture you will see a painting of a banquet that was probably held at the funeral of Vestorius Priscus. On the other side, there is a painting of two gladiators fighting. Gladiator shows were usually held to honor very important people at their funerals.
The reason why the Porta Vesuvio is so special is that you will be in one of the highest points of the ancient city of Pompeii. If you see a Maritime Pine, an umbrella-shaped pine tree that grew over a layer of pumice stone and ashes from the 79 A.D. eruption, you are in the best scenic spot in Pompeii. You can overlook the entire city and appreciate not only what you can see, but the parts that have yet to be excavated. Looking beyond Pompeii, you can see the Sorrento Peninsula and the Isle of Capri.
While these are just 5 of the highlights of the many places you can explore while touring Pompeii it will leave you wanting to return.
For years this ancient city has intrigued 2.5 million tourists a year, including me. I would highly recommend hiring a private guide to show you around as it is quite overwhelming and you will learn and enjoy your time so much more with their help.
This article was written in partnership with Licensed Tour Guide; Alex Falanga of Tour Pompeii, to ensure facts and content accuracy.
Alex has been living in Pompeii since his childhood and has a love and a passion for history, archeology, and geography.
He specializes in the guiding tours in Campania Region, which includes Pompeii, Herculaneum, Capri, and Sorrento.
To book a tour with Alex or ask questions, go to www.tourpompei.com
There will also be a link to Tour Italy on our Travel Resources page.