Ancient Pompeii: Italy’s calling card and its contradictions

Wed 28 Dec 2016

Pompeii, in many ways, is both the antithesis and the epitome of Italy’s calling card, her charm, her raison d’être in the foreigner’s image repertoire. On one hand, we like to visit Italy because of its stratification, its non-linear cities, its art, its innate beauty, the fact the you could trip on a cobblestone and fall into Largo Argentina where Caesar was presumably shanked. (then again, perhaps we tell ourselves these things, then really come to Italy for mangiatory purposes).

Italy is like the past that keeps living. It won’t die. Ever. Eternal, if you will (wink). It keeps going and going and going, hair styles change and jackets tend to get shinier ever year, but we’re still walking the same streets, still living in the same buildings that the ancients lived in one gajillion years ago.

Pompeii though, Pompeii is different. It is old, anciently old. Even Pliny the Younger is going on going on 2,000 years old. But cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum are unique. They are frozen in time, making them unique to the world of private tours and group tours because we can only imagine how life was and would be pre-79 AD, when Vesuvius eternalized the former bustling Roman metropolis into a museum. Plus it’s easier to observe the locals when they can’t move.

Many ancient traditions have survived the ages. Some have evolved, some haven’t, some are exactly the way eternity’s father left them. Though we may not associate it with Pompeii or antiquity in general, street food, it was the pinnacle of the lives of the ancient romans of Pompeii. Much like modern day Naples, Pompeii was overflowing with kiosks and food stands. Pizza fritus. Potato Croquettus.

Back in the day, the romans would hop in their Fiatium 500 or on their Vespius and cruise to down to the thermal baths, maybe head down to Pompeii’s more raunchy neighborhoods where they would check out the world’s most famous ‘dirty’ paintings, many of the ancient erotic frescoes and sculptures are still completely in tact and visible if you take a tour of Pompeii, and/or a tour of Naples’ National Archeological Museum’s and its “Secret Cabinet” room.

Typically, after a long day of bathing with friends and looking at weird ancient porn, your average ancient doesn’t want to go straight home and eat the same fish garum his mother has been serving since Before Christ. Instead, the ancient roman of Pompeii hits up the most happening snack bar in town—the thermopolium. He orders a slice of pizza margheritus and a glass of the local honey wine, tempered with water, washing it all down with an espresso. For good measure, he throws some coins into the tip jar (they were still on the lira back then) and hits the road.

It’s not that we can’t see the how the ancients lived because in the end, it’s not so different from how we live now. It is, however, cool to see how they all died, ironically frozen in time via lava, forever on display their in snack bars, the still in tact thermopolium, the amphitheaters and peep shows, making Pompeii a perfect weekend trip from Rome. Maybe even a perfect week long trip. Or longer. For eternity perhaps.

– By Anthony Mastroianni –

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