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Lost treasures of Pompeii.

Byline: Isabel Berenguer Asuncion

CLASSICAL Roman details embellish the vaulted ceiling at one of the well-preserved thermae or public baths of the ancient city of Pompeii.

When I was much younger, I thought this story about a volcano erupting and burying an entire city and all its wealth and treasures was mythical. But no, it was real. My summer holidays finally took me to central Italy's Campania region near what is now the city of Naples. Here, Mount Vesuvius looms over the once-lost city of Pompeii.

Tremors preceded that fateful moment in the morning of Aug. 24, AD 79, when the volcano erupted. By: nightfall, Pompeii had been buried in meters of ash and sand. The violence of the eruption is 100,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

While many old settlements have fallen into the same fate, this city is one of the few that fascinates historians and archeologists alike. Rediscovered in the 18th century, its well-preserved elements make Pompeii possibly one of the world's richest, best-preserved and longest-excavated ancient Roman ruins.

The once-lost city occupies approximately 3 square kilometers and lies some 2 km inland from the coastline. In its heyday, it was right beside the sea with densely populated suburbs surrounding its 12,000 people. It was a major trading port that had moved inland due to numerous earthquakes and movements of the earth's plate and now rises 4 meters higher than its original elevation.

Fortification wall

Like many towns of that time, it was protected by a fortification wall with gates of arched entrances separating pedestrian and chariot traffic. Its main roads traversed a north-south axis, and its secondary roads went perpendicular at an East-West orientation.

The city was essentially planned as a grid. Roads were paved with large stones and also served as their main sewage ways as the bedrock was apparently too dense to excavate for underground sewer systems. Elevated stones were located at pedestrian crossings as step stones, much like those for traversing a river. In between these rocks, the roads bear scars from the wheels of horse carriages.

Spring water was distributed throughout the city through leaded pipes, which unfortunately brought about poisoning and had most of the population dying in their 30s or 40s. Decorative waterspouts and basins for public use were found at almost every corner of the city, and they have as much as 40 of these still working to this day.

What I find most fascinating about Pompeii is its mix of many building types. Barracks for gladiators surround an open field that served as their training ground. Beside it, a large theater for performances, and yet a larger amphitheater and palestra or training hall sat side by side at the lower eastern end of the city.

Pompeii's main forum is perched close to the port at the city's highest elevation, its main square surrounded by the temples built in honor of its deities. The temples of Apollo and Jupiter, the macellum or agora, and the building of Eumachia-a prominent female Pompeiian who was the alpha-woman of her time-surrounded this vast public space lined with large Roman columns.

The central baths or thermae were located a block away with their various compartments, the structure of the floor heating system still visible and remnants of frescoes still decorating their walls. Along the sidewalks of the affluent neighborhood, the decorative mosaic flooring indicated the status of those inside. At night, the mosaics glowed in the moonlight.

Assembly place

Pompeii also had public latrines, a basilica-which then was an assembly place rather than our familiar worship place-schools, water tanks, taverns and a brothel, the latter still holding the tiny rooms with walls still bearing some of the frescoes that were, in fact, the "menu" for the services provided. Outside, red oil lamps were lit when women were available. Hence, your common-day term "red-light district."

The city's public walls still show tell-tale signs of posters, announcements, signages and graffiti, expressing insights into the various strata of Pompeii's society-merchants, women, slaves and gladiators. Here, you could feel the diversity of the community.

The lost and found treasures of Pompeii are not the valuable artifacts and art found in its ruins, but rather, the wealth of information that historians and archeologists manage to collect through the intangible remnants of this once bustling city. The combination of its town planning, architecture, arts, engineering and the wealth of written records tell us so much. Ultimately, the romance with Pompeii goes beyond its mythical legends, and thrives on the lives both stellar and ordinary in the workings of a society that lived long ago. Everyday life as we've never thought it to be.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Jun 21, 2014
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