Paestum, Pompeii, Herculaneum and some Art….

my parents at paestum

This week we’ve visited the ruins at Paestum, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and the National Archaelogical Museum in Naples


Paestum was a major Greco-Roman city  founded around the end of the 7th century BC by colonists from the Greek city of Sybaris.  Very little is known about it during its first centuries.

cam in paestum

The main attractions today are the standing remains of three major temples in the Doric style, dating from the first half of the 6th century BC, dedicated to Hera and Poseidon.  IMG_7695 They’re pretty incredible.

The city prospered during the Roman imperial period, but started to go into decline between the 4th and 7th centuries. It was abandoned during the Middle Ages, and its ruins only came to light again in the 18th century, following the rediscovery of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.


Now it mostly belongs to the tourists and the lizards.

my dad

The next two ruins we visited, Pompeii and Herculaneum, were bustling Roman cities until the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Researchers believe that Pompeii was founded in the 7th or 6th century BC and was captured by the Romans in 80 BC. By the time of its destruction, 160 years later, its population was approximately 20,000, with a complex water system, an amphitheatre, gymnasium where gladiators trained, and a port.



The site was lost for about 1500 years until its initial rediscovery in 1599 and broader rediscovery almost 150 years later.

Pompeii and Herculaneum had red light districts and erotic artwork was often used to designate these areas of town and serve as a menu of sorts for services (“just like at Burger King today,” quipped our guide.)

A large collection of erotic objects and frescoes were found at Pompeii and many were removed and saved. In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to men.

Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s. Lucky for Cam and me, the secret collection was re-opened for viewing in 2000 to the public, so we got to see it with our parents.  I’ll share a fresco, sculpture and a windchime so you get an idea….

The prevalence of this artwork indicates that the sexual mores of the Roman times were more liberal than most present-day cultures and researchers think that much of what is described as erotic imagery was in fact fertility imagery.  Women weren’t the only prostitutes in town, in addition to training and fighting, gladiators served as gigolos for the upper class ladies but would remained chained to their cells while they performed.

Back to the ruins, I promise no more phallic art….


After Pompeii we made the quick drive to the town of Herculaneum.  As you might gather from its name,  the inhabitants worshipped Hercules, who was believed to be the founder of both the town and Mount Vesuvius.

At the same time Pompeii was destroyed, Herculaneum was buried under approximately 50–60 feet of ash and mud. It was hidden until the 1700’s when digging for wells and underground tunnels prompted further explorations. Excavations continue today and while many streets and buildings are visible, over 75% of the town remains buried.  IMG_7814

Initial excavations revealed only a few skeletons of men, women and children so it was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape. In 1981, excavations reached the arches on the beach area and researchers discovered several hundred skeletons huddled close together facing the sea. Further excavations in the 1990s confirmed that at least 300 people had taken refuge in those chambers, while the town was almost completely evacuated.

Today, the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici, which you can see in the backdrop of the above photo,  lie on the approximate site of Herculaneum, hindering further excavation as you might imagine.  

Volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over 1600 years until excavations in 1738 by a Spanish engineer.   The consequential exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. Early methods of archaeology centered around recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of all artifacts.

Today, tourism and vandalism have damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage  has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings.Hopefully someone will endow future preservation and excavation so these sites won’t disappear.

I loved seeing this ancient history and was also a big fan of the lemonade stands that are outside the ruin sites.  Here you can get a squeezed-before-your-eyes lemonade,orangeade or combo, blended with ice and a touch of sugar. So good


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