Pompeii's ruins tell a stark and heartrending story. One day Pompeii was a thriving, lively city; the next it was a steaming mound of smoldering volcanic ash. Does Pompeii's tragic tale hold lessons for us today?
Warning signs had been building for some time. Streams and wells had suddenly dried up, particularly those near Mt. Vesuvius towering nearby.
Some of the farmers attributed the sudden disappearance of water to the hot late-August weather. They didn't realize that not far beneath the earth's surface the water was being vaporized by the steadily rising heat.
Out in the majestic Bay of Naples, the sea had mysteriously begun to boil in some places, the underground heat sending streams of bubbles gurgling to the surface. Fishermen puzzled at the curious sight and murmured among themselves.
Here and there even the ground had begun to rumble and quiver. Mt. Vesuvius itself appeared to moan and groan from time to time.
Ominously, many animals—dogs, cats, mice and rats—had begun abandoning the city of Pompeii. Something strange was happening. The people wondered what it could mean.
Unknown to them, a deadly monster was stirring.
A city built on rock
Centuries earlier, the settlers who first arrived in the area were glad to find such a pleasant site for a city.
The Bay of Naples, part of the Mediterranean Sea, provided an abundant harvest of fish. The soil of the area was rich and dark, promising plentiful crops, especially when coupled with the warm climate. A river, the Sarno, provided plenty of fresh water for drinking. A harbor provided ready access for ships and the growing trade network in the area.
A large mountain, later to be named Vesuvius, loomed nearby. Its pine-covered slopes offered plenty of timber for homes, shops and villas. A large rock plateau stretching toward the sea offered a spacious, level site with lots of room for a city to grow and plenty of stone for building.
Those early settlers who laid out their settlement on the plateau didn't realize they were building their city atop an ancient lava flow that stretched all the way to towering Vesuvius, six miles away.
Prosperity rooted in past catastrophes
Over the next few centuries the city expanded out over the plateau. Changing hands over the years from the Greeks to the Etruscans to the Samnites, it finally came under Rome's influence as an allied city late in the fourth century B.C.
After rebelling against Rome in 90 B.C., Pompeii became a colony of the growing Roman Empire and its people became citizens. The area blossomed both as a commercial and agricultural hub and as a resort.
The city boasted smooth stone-paved streets, an amphitheater large enough to seat 20,000 spectators for gladiatorial contests, two large theaters for plays and concerts, shops of all kinds, elaborate vineyards and gardens, an enormous forum and many multistoried buildings.
Pompeii's many public fountains were fed by two large brick reservoirs, which in turn were supplied via an arched aqueduct stretching 18 miles to a mountain lake. As was the case with many Roman cities, its citizens relaxed in several large public baths. Quite ornate, the baths featured steamrooms and separate hot and cold pools for soaking as well as a large pool for swimming.
Much of the city's wealth could be traced to the rich soil of the area, so fertile that three crops of grain could be grown in a single year. Rows of vines marching across the landscape supplied the grapes for the area's noted wine production. On the lower slopes of Vesuvius, groves of olive trees produced tons of olives for food and oil. Lush fields outside the city supported large flocks of sheep and a thriving wool industry.
Pompeii's inhabitants didn't realize that the fertile soil on which so much of their prosperity depended was the result of Vesuvius' past volcanic eruptions.
Enjoying the good life
For most, life was good in Pompeii. For many, it was quite luxurious. The great Roman orator Cicero had a villa in Pompeii; Julius Caesar's father-in-law owned one in nearby Herculaneum. Some villas were so large they took up an entire city block.
Most villas were built surrounding an open central courtyard, often highlighted by a pool and sometimes a fountain. There wealthy Pompeians could relax on hot summer days surrounded by opulent colonnaded gardens featuring elegant statuary and beautiful mosaic floors. Inside, many villas were equally richly decorated with colorful frescoes depicting various aspects of daily life, history and the mythology and religious beliefs of Pompeii's citizens.
The city's wealth and favorable position drew visitors from all over the empire. Pompeii was quite cosmopolitan, showing influences from many regions and religions. Its people could worship at its many temples dedicated to the Roman pantheon—Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, Isis, Minerva and others.
For those whose worship ran to the more mundane level, graffiti inscribed on Pompeii's walls testified that successful gladiators were among the major celebrities of the day: "Celadus is the heartthrob of all the girls." "Severus—55 fights—has just won again." "The unbeaten Hermiscus was here." "Crescens, the net fighter, holds the hearts of all the girls." Other graffiti urged citizens to vote for this or that candidate.
Pompeii lay secure behind its massive defensive walls, which stood 20 feet thick and more than 30 feet high in some places. The hard stone for the walls, also used to pave the city's streets, was basalt, quarried nearby. Pompeii's builders didn't know it, but the basalt was hardened lava from past volcanic eruptions that had engulfed the area.
Pompeii was so prosperous that, when many of its major buildings suffered considerable damage from an earthquake in A.D. 62, it refused Rome's offers of assistance. Its citizens preferred to go it alone, confident that they could handle this and any other setback.
Even when aftershocks rattled the city off and on for several years, Pompeians remained largely unconcerned. They certainly didn't connect them with Mt. Vesuvius, which, to their knowledge, had always been a peaceful mountain.
They failed to recognize the growing danger—that, six miles away, unimaginable pressures were building beneath Vesuvius as it began to awaken from its long sleep.
Hell comes to earth
In August of A.D. 79, the earthquake activity intensified. Then, on Aug. 24—ironically, the date of the Vulcanalia, a festival honoring Vulcan, the Roman god of fire—the world ended for Pompeii.
About noon that day, as thousands of Pompeians went about their daily activities of farming, fishing, buying, selling, eating and drinking, they were startled and shaken by a deafening roar.
The top of towering and vast Mt. Vesuvius vanished in a nuclear-scale explosion. Dust, red-hot pumice, ash and flames were blasted more than a dozen miles into the sky. Men, women and children gasped and screamed as bright midday suddenly turned black, illuminated only by flashes of lightning and fiery trails of burning rocks as they crashed to the ground among the teeming, terrified people.
A blanket of choking, gritty ash—a suffocating snowfall from hell—quickly began to cover the city. Panicked Pompeians hurried to find family members and flee, seeking safety outside the city. Others, terrified by the rain of burning ash and pumice, hurried inside, bolting doors and shutters behind them.
Eventually dusk fell, though few in the doomed city would have recognized the difference. By that time several feet of ash covered everything. A few stragglers lit torches and struggled through the ash, hoping to find safety at the port or via the roads leading out of the city—if they could find them.
As night came, roofs began to creak and collapse from the weight of the ash. Some, realizing they would suffocate or be buried alive by the growing ashfall, clambered out second-floor windows, gasping for breath in the ash-choked air. Others in their desperation chopped holes through the roofs and walls of their houses to escape. A few remained behind seeking shelter wherever they could.
At one residence, a dog chained in the yard climbed higher and higher as the level of ash continued to rise. Finally, as his chain ran out and he could climb no higher, the dog suffocated as the ash covered his nose and mouth.
By now the city contained only the dead and those who would die.
Throughout the night the rain of ash continued to fall. Three times during the night, avalanches of rocks, hot ash and poisonous gas surged down the mountain but fell short of enveloping Pompeii. Even so, by the time the sky lightened somewhat at dawn, seven feet of pumice and ash covered much of Pompeii.
The final blows
Early that morning Vesuvius delivered its final blows to the mortally wounded city. In less than an hour, three more superheated avalanches, accompanied by a rain of tons of very fine ash, swallowed the city. The first two choked Pompeii with another two feet of volcanic ash and debris; the third struck with such force that most of what still stood above the accumulated volcanic deposits was sheered off and carried away.
These scorching blasts, with their poisonous gases and fumes, killed everyone and everything that remained. A few Pompeians—husbands and wives, parents and children, longtime friends—comforted each other as they died, frozen in time in embraces that would last forever.
Over that day and the next, at least two more avalanches swept over the city, burying it even more deeply. When Vesuvius—now a shattered stump of a mountain—finally grew quiet, survivors in the surrounding towns and countryside stared out over a gray, ashen landscape that looked like the surface of the moon.
Gone were the lush fields and meadows, the trees, even the river. A few shattered trees poked up through the smoldering ash. The thriving city of Pompeii was no more; it had been transformed into a graveyard.
Some survivors went back to the large mound of ash and debris that had been their city. Here and there a rooftop or broken wall or column helped guide people to their buried homes. As the ash cooled, a few burrowed tunnels to retrieve valuables.
One person, likely a Jew or Christian, couldn't escape the parallel with a biblical story. Tunneling in the ruins, he scribbled "Sodom and Gomorrah" on a wall.
Most of the survivors, however, simply abandoned the city for good. It wasn't long before all who knew a city once lay there had died out. As the centuries passed, Vesuvius erupted time and time again, covering the buried city with more layers of ash, further sealing Pompeii within its cold gray tomb.
There it would lay, 20 feet underground—a first-century city frozen in time until its chance discovery and identification nearly 17 centuries later.
A sobering reminder of many things
Pompeii has proved to be a treasure trove to historians and archaeologists. The light it has shed on first-century life in the Roman world is profound. The amount of information it has provided to scholars of many fields is staggering.
Millions of visitors have come to walk its streets, to admire its delicate artwork and to peer into houses, stores and workshops still standing 2,000 years later and wonder what life was like back then.
One cannot go away from the place unmoved—at least I can't imagine anyone doing so. Pompeii is a sobering reminder of so many things—of the fragility and fleetingness of our existence, of how entire cities and civilizations can vanish, of how there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Perhaps most of all, it's a reminder of the folly of human beings in refusing to face up to unpleasant realities, of ignoring or misunderstanding the danger signs until it's too late.
Rich and poor, free citizen and slave, young and old—all met the same fate in Pompeii. The only ones who escaped were those who recognized the growing danger. For those who lingered too long, denying the seriousness of their plight or hoping that conditions would somehow change, the city became their tomb.
The lesson of Sodom
One citizen of ancient Pompeii got one lesson right—the man who scribbled "Sodom and Gomorrah" on one of the city's buried walls. His simple, three-word judgment says more about the city than many books that have been written about it.
A modern visitor to Pompeii doesn't have to look very hard to see evidence of the moral climate of the city. Up to several dozen buildings have been identified as likely houses of prostitution. Some, due to the explicit wall paintings and graffiti found in them, leave no doubt as to their purpose.
Even in private homes, wall paintings and mosaics depict all kinds of sexual activity, and many common household objects such as lamps, dishes, vases and fountains have been found with sexual motifs. Recent excavations at one of Pompeii's public baths indicate that one floor of the structure may have been a brothel.
Oversized representations of sex organs can be found built into the walls facing some streets, and in at least one case carved right in the street itself.
The Bible tells us that sexual perversion was rampant in the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-13), which God destroyed by fire (verse 24). Their depravity was so great that they have become a byword for sin and God's judgment.
Yet today many of our cities are no different from Sodom and Pompeii. Seldom mentioned in news coverage was the fact that the devastating December 2004 tsunami wiped out the portion of the Thai coast infamous for its child-sex trade, or that New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina five days before 100,000 gays and lesbians were to be welcomed into the city for its appropriately named "Southern Decadence" festival.
Will we ignore the lesson?
Does the catastrophe that befell Pompeii hold lessons for us today?
It certainly should. The story of Pompeii haunts our collective memory and fills us with a vague sense of unease. After all, if it could happen to them, an entire city . . .
In many ways our era is much like the time of Pompeii. Many of us surround ourselves with luxuries and conveniences. Life is good; we live in the wealthiest and most prosperous time in human history. Technology has given us so much, made life so comfortable.
Could it ever end? Your Bible says that it can—and that it will.
We live in a world as awash in sin as it is in material pleasures. "But know this," said the apostle Paul, "that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (2 Timothy 3:1-4, emphasis added throughout).
While Paul was describing our day, he could just as well have been describing Pompeii. And like Pompeii, there will be a day of reckoning.
Prophecy after prophecy of the Bible foretells a time of global trouble that will be unlike anything human beings have ever experienced (Jeremiah 30:7; Daniel 12:1). Jesus Christ says of this time: "For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again" (Matthew 24:21, New International Version).
Can we even begin to comprehend that? What does it mean to have a time of terror and turmoil, chaos and catastrophe unlike anything witnessed in human history? Many of us sat glued to the TV as we watched coverage of last December's tsunami and of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Were we seeing a glimpse of mankind's future, not just for those areas but for the entire world?
As this year draws to a close, think back on the news that has dominated the headlines in recent months and years—terrible natural disasters, war, terrorism, wildfires, suicide bombings, corruption, bloody civil wars, terrorists trying to acquire nuclear weapons, drought, famines, disease outbreaks, failed peace efforts, hostility toward God and His truth. Read Matthew 24 and make your own checklist of Jesus Christ's words.
As a thief in the night
Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, wrote a warning that is far more applicable to our day than his own: "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.
"But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober."
Whenever I read this passage I think not only of our day, but of ancient Pompeii. One day Pompeii was a thriving, vibrant city, and the next it was a giant tomb. "Sudden destruction" takes on a whole new meaning as you stroll Pompeii's long-dead streets and consider that you're walking through a 2,000-year-old time capsule.
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius happened at lunchtime, so life stopped before many Pompeians could finish their meal. Their food lay untouched for almost 2,000 years. Cooking pots still contained the bones of stews. One oven contained the remains of a pig that had been left roasting at the time the disaster struck. Bread, eggs, fish, nuts and dates lay undisturbed on tables until stunned excavators uncovered them.
Most haunting of all the sights in Pompeii are the casts of those who didn't make it out of the doomed city. Their bodies, sealed in the hardening ash, eventually decayed to dust, leaving voids into which Pompeii's excavators poured plaster and concrete almost 2,000 years later. The resulting ghostly images captured the citizens of Pompeii at the moment of their deaths.
We see plenty of warning signs around us. Do we understand them? Or do we willingly choose to misunderstand them, writing them off as passing inconveniences or temporary interruptions in the constantly improving flow of human progress?
Will we, like the doomed citizens of Pompeii, ignore the rumblings and tremors until it's too late? Or will we heed the words of Jesus Christ's warning in Luke 21:36: "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." GN