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The tragic story of Pompeii has always fascinated me, the ancient city buried under ash for two millennia after its hulking volcanic neighbor belched out some fiery displeasure in the heart of the Roman Empire.

POMPEI3Its excavation in the 18th century captivated Europe and spawned a neoclassical revival in art and architecture.  Poets were haunted by the images of desperate families huddled together in the vain hope of surviving the onslaught.  Their last moments were frozen for eternity by the statues made from the cement excavators poured into the air pockets where they fell .
Maybe this fascination with Pompeii was just an early version of what we today would cynically refer to as disaster porn.  Regardless I took time on a recent trip to Italy to visit the lost metropolis and wander the eerily quiet and empty streets dug up over the many decades, hoping to catch a glimmer into that sad distant past.
The legend of Pompeii of course has hidden the reality of the event much as the ash has concealed the city itself.  I learned that most of the inhabitants had fled days before Mt. Vesuvius erupted, well aware the mountain was going to blow.  The ancients were not as ignorant as we moderns tend to view them, bad Hollywood movies notwithstanding.  Many of those left behind had little choice but to stay as they had nowhere else to go.  Something that is disturbingly all too familiar in the disaster zones of today.  Vesuvius now stands silent as more of a beautiful backdrop than an existential threat.  It was difficult for me to fathom the ferocity of the eruption on such a peaceful bright and blue day.

POMPEI1The level of preservation is astounding, a time capsule still being unearthed by archaeologists.  The stone streets have ruts in them where countless chariot wheels rolled overhead and walkways of tall stones that allowed pedestrians to avoid the waste that once flowed underfoot.  The yard where slaves were trained to become gladiators makes for a peaceful grotto now.
Carefully placed phallic symbols continue to point visitors in the direction of the brothels.  Along the way are earthen stands that once held pots of stew where one could grab a bite to eat, the fast food joints of yesteryear.  The saunas reveal the machinations underneath where water was pumped in and heated for the wealthy patrons.  The temples to forgotten gods have seen better days, yet their fragmented pillars maintain a poetic quality when viewed against Vesuvius lurking in the distance.
It is an incredible place to visit. I’ve always suspected that the fascination with Pompeii has less to do with the ancient history of the city than Pompeii as a forerunner of our own apocalyptic POMPEI2demise. What struck me about the inhabitants of the city was how ordinary their lives were compared to the heroic figures of Rome immortalized in statues and triumphal arches. These were people much like us going about their daily activities: eating in restaurants, going to the theater, watching sporting competitions, relaxing in the saunas, enjoying some raucous sex. Then an uncaring universe blew their world up. Visiting Pompeii is both a step back into antiquity and a possible peek into the ultimate fate of our own civilizations.