On August 24, 79 AD, at about noon, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying the Roman city of Pompei with pumus and ash, killing everyone, but creating a coverinig that would allow most of the city to stay in tact. Excavated over the last couple centuries, Pompei provides a remarkable opportunity to go back in time, at least in the imagination, and explore what life in the early Roman Empire was like.
I’m too tired tonight to offer much eloquence in the way of a reflection on today’s trip from Rome to Naples, and then on to Pompei. So I’ll just make a few observations.
The students were amazed, saddened and overwhelmed by the experience of being here, and learning about what happened back in the first century. One student who had been researching the subject told me she had chills walking on these streets, the same ones that Roman chariots once drove on. We could see the wheel grooves in the stone from centuries of use. The students also were eager to learn about what life was like in the Roman empire, as we went through the taverns, homes and even the town brothel (complete with still existing frescoes showing the specialty of the woman of each particular room). I’m convinced that the learning done on a trip like this is deeper and more relevant to ones’ life than classroom learning. The imprint of Pompei and the Vatican are already on their minds; learning while being there is so much better than taking notes in class or reading a book. The students are having an experience that will change their lives. Being able to be a part of that enriches my life.
As I walked the streets I tried to imagine how it must have been nearly two millenia ago, when Pompei was a bustling upscale resort town, still trying to recover from the fateful (and foreboding) earthquake of 63. Images of children playing, merchants haggling, some drinking at the tavern, and houses two and three stories tall with colorful faux marble paint overcame my mind. Clearly, they had a very good life. Given that the town had been there for some time, and they had seen the evolution of a small Republic to a dominant world empire, they must have thought that not only was Rome invulnerable, but they themselves were as advanced as one could imagine humans becoming. The homes of the upper middle class were large and ornate, and the Amphitheater impressive.
Then came the erruption on that fateful August afternoon. A few students today said they were ‘amazed but sad’ by the experience in Pompei. It hit them, seeing the homes and artifacts, that this was a true human tragedy, ending lives and wiping out a city. I tried to imagine the scene as Vesuvius errupted. People must have watched in amazement at first, and probably thought they were likely safe. As we took the Circumvesuviana train through the towns on the base of Vesuvius back to Naples, I was struck by how many people were living still at the base of an active and in fact overdue volcano. Vesuvius, oddly shaped after it lost its cone in 79, dominates the landscape of the heavily populated bay of Naples. The people seem fatalistic about it — when it goes, it will go.
Combined with yesterday’s trip to the Vatican, I hope students are learning to see themselves as part of a mosaic of history, not simply discrete individuals thrown into a world where their values, ways of thinking, and ideas are “normal,” while other people are “strange.” We are a product of our history; how we think and what we value is very much a result of the way our culture and civilization developed. Rome, the Church, and as we move to Florence on Tuesday the Renaissance, all are part of who we are today. If we don’t understand the past, we don’t know ourselves. The students are starting to get that, making connections, and feeling history, not just learning details.
Tomorrow it’s a mix of past and present. It’s the last day in Rome, a chance to give students some free time, do another excursion, and end with another walk through the city, hitting some of my favorite spots — Campo di Fiori, Trastevere, a walk, a meal, and to throw some coins in the fountain. I hope also to visit my three favorite churches — Santa Maria in Trastevere (beautiful early evening!), Santa Cecilia, and Santa Maria del Popolo. We got to the latter on day one, but it was closed. So more tomorrow, but for now I’m too tired to type another word!