In Roman times, Pompeii was an important industrial and commercial town, with a complex layered society, that is reflected in the urban structures on view today. Besides elegant villas belonging to the richer citizens, there were blocks of more modest housing, as well as shops, restaurants, hotels, and public buildings. The eruption covered Pompeii with volcanic ash and pumice stone, a much lighter material than what rained down on Herculaneum. This meant that the survivors of the disaster were able to retrieve some of their possessions, leaving less behind than in other locations. It also made it easier for the site to be excavated -- and, unfortunately looted -- in more recent centuries. In the 19th and early 20th century, precious mosaics and frescoes were carefully detached and placed on display in museums although the contemporary approach is to leave everything in situ to depict the town as it would have been at the time.
Surrounded by walls, Pompeii was much closer to the sea than it is now, as the water has receded substantially since the days of the eruption. Civic life revolved around three centers: the Forum; the Triangular Forum with the Theater District; and the complex with the Amphitheatre and the Palestra. The rest of town was residential and commercial. Streets were lined with small shops and taverns, and the walls were covered with red writing advertising the candidates to the local elections. You'll also see black charcoal graffiti, and painted signs for bars and shops. All these are still visible in the area of the so-called Nuovi Scavi (still bearing the name that it was given in 1911) to the southeast of town.
The Forum is a large, rectangular open space covering over 17,400 sq. m (58,000 sq. ft.) and surrounded by a portico on three sides. On the fourth is the Temple of Jupiter, dating from the 2nd century B.C., built over a high foundation. The Forum was decorated with bronze and marble statues of important citizens, but the niches stand empty because their objects were removed after the tragedy in A.D. 79. On the Forum was the Macellum, the covered food market. Opposite the market was the Basilica, the largest building in town, which housed the meeting hall and tribunal.
The Triangular Forum is another large area that was once surrounded by a portico. In the middle are the ruins of the Doric Temple from the 6th century B.C. This was the heart of the Theater District, with the beautiful Teatro Grande from the 2nd century B.C., which could hold an audience of 5,000. Farther on is the Odeion, or Small Theater, from the 1st century B.C., used for music and mime shows, which could hold 1,000 spectators. Nearby are the Temple of Isis, one of the best-conserved temples to this goddess to survive from antiquity, and the Terme Stabiane (Stabian Baths), one of the town's four public baths, with well-preserved mosaic, painting, and marble works.
From the Forum, you can take Via dell'Abbondanza, the town's main commercial street, lined with shops of all kinds and leading to the southeast of town, the most recently excavated area. One of the most curious shops is the Fullonica Stephani (Stephen's Dry-Cleaning); the shop is on the ground floor and the owner's apartment on the second. Farther on is the Casa di Loreius Tiburtinus, with an elegant internal loggia bordering a long pool and decorated with small marble statues; at the end is the Triclinium, with two beautiful paintings. At the end of the road to the right is the complex with the Palestra, where sports events were held, with a grandiose swimming pool and surrounded by plane trees (you can see the plaster casts of the stumps). Farther on is the Amphitheatre, the oldest Roman amphitheater in the world, built in 80 B.C., with seating for 1,000 people.
Among the other famous private houses here is the elegant Casa dei Vettii (House of the Vettii), with its magnificent paintings that belonged to two rich merchants; they had just redecorated after the damages caused by the earthquake in A.D. 62, so all of the paintings were in excellent shape. The magnificent frescoed Triclinium (Dining Room)features figures and amorini (cupids) on Pompeiian red-and-black backgrounds. Nearby is the Casa del Fauno (House of the Faun), the largest of private homes -- it takes up an entire block. The finest decorative pieces of this once-exquisite mansion are now in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples. Another famous house is the Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet), with its famous CAVE CANEM (Beware of Dog) mosaic by the entrance; most of its paintings have been removed to the Archaeological Museum in Naples. The gilded cupids that ornately decorated one of the rooms of Casa degli Amorini Dorati (House of the Gilded Cupids) (by guided tour only) are in the same museum, but many of the frescoes and marble decorations remain.
On the edge of town, along Via Villa dei Misteri, was Pompeii's fourth thermal establishment, Terme Suburbane (by guided tour only). These privately owned thermal baths were opened to the public in 2002 after lengthy restoration. Much looted over the centuries, they were the newest of the bath establishments in Pompeii and the most unusual. Contrary to traditional Roman custom, the baths are "mixed," for both men and women. The interior holds beautiful frescoes and mosaic decorations, including some of erotic content: One even shows a homosexual scene between women, uncommon in Roman iconography.
Outside Pompeii's walls the excavations continue along Via dei Sepolcri, a road lined with funerary monuments that leads outside the city walls toward the Porto Ercolano, Pompeii's harbor (about a 1km/half-mile walk). The Villa dei Misteri (House of the Mysteries) is a suburban estate famous for its frescoes that illustrates the three styles of Pompeiian painting. Its most famous one is the large fresco on the wall of what was probably a triclynium (dining room), depicting several figures participating in a ceremony thought to be related to the cult of Dionysus (Bacchus).
Tip: Guided tours are offered with advance reservation (tel. 081-8575347; www.arethusa.net). If you are signing up for more than one tour, keep in mind that it might take more than 30 minutes to walk between sites.