In 62AD, the Campanian city of Pompeii was devastated by an earthquake. Did the disaster irrevocably damage the city or was it offer an opportunity for revitalization?
‘I have just heard that Pompeii, the famous city in Campania has been laid low by an earthquake which has also disturbed all the adjacent districts…’ (Seneca, Book 6, Natural Questions)
On the 5th February 62AD, Pompeii was indeed ‘laid low’ by an earthquake which affected much of the region. Unknown to the local Campanians, the event was the first indication that the volcano Vesuvius was awakening from a long period of dormancy.
The violent tremors devastated Pompeii. Public buildings collapsed, the water supply was disrupted and homes damaged or destroyed.
Rebuilding began immediately. Seventeen years later, it appears it was still ongoing. The forum was unfinished and many homes still renovating and redecorating. Some believe this indicates that Pompeii struggled to recover from the earthquake. Others believe the archaeology suggests something quite different.
Pompeii in Decline?
After the earthquake, many of the grand residences of Pompeii seem to have changed from a domestic to commercial function. Some, like Stephanus’s Fullery on the Via della Abbondanza completely converted the house space to accommodate a trade. Others remained in part domestic with the rest of the space given over to commerce.
One example is the Villa of the Mysteries. Following the earthquake, doorways in the main house were bricked up and others added, altering the layout of the house. The villa ceased to be solely a high status country residence. Now it was part of a working farm.
Archaeological evidence indicates the villa was originally owned by the Istacidii, a noble Samnite family. After 62AD, a seal shows that the villa changed hands, passing onto Lucius Istacidius Zosimus, a freedman of the former owners.
The case of the Villa of the Mysteries and other similar properties in Pompeii has led to theories that the earthquake ruined many of the old aristocracy, with a rising class of tradesmen taking their place.
There is other evidence for decline, not only for the aristocracy but Pompeii as a whole. When the forum was first excavated, many of the buildings were found to be incomplete. Some, like the Capitolium were not been repaired at all after the earthquake. Others were in an incomplete state, with marble facings missing. In addition, many of the statue pedestals in the forum were empty, suggesting that the statues had never been replaced.
The disarray in the forum was believed to indicate that Pompeii did not have the resources to repair its civic center. An alternative view of the forum has been suggested by John Dobbins, who attributes its state to post eruption looting. Once the ash had settled in 79AD, the tops of the forum’s buildings would have acted as markers to those returning to the city to recover personal and civic valuables. Most of the statues and much of the missing marble facings could have been taken at this time.
Indeed, far from struggling to recover, it seems that Pompeii took advantage of the earthquake to modernize.
The New Central Baths.
Whole areas of housing were damaged in the quake. In some parts of the city, these lost homes were not rebuilt. Instead, the land was used to build modern public facilities for Pompeii as a whole, such as the first new set of public baths for just under a century.
The new central baths were spacious, light and airy due to high vaulted ceilings and multiple windows. They were state of the art, employing the latest first century innovations in bath house technology. They demonstrate that there was no shortage of money for post-earthquake public construction in Pompeii.
Funding for Recovery.
Some of the money for the restoration of Pompeii may well have come from Rome and the emperor himself. But other public works were funded in exactly the same way they had always been-from the pockets of politically astute local businessmen.
One such person was Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, a freedman of the Poppidii. As a former slave, he was debarred from public office. But his son was not. So Ampliatus found a suitable project that would bolster his son’s political career. The Cult of Isis was popular in Pompeii and its temple had been completely destroyed. After the earthquake, Ampliatus rebuilt it in luxurious style and recorded his generosity on the dedicatory inscription.
Ampliatus’s generous gesture paid off. Despite being old six years old, his son was voted onto the city council as a gesture of gratitude.
A Warning from Vesuvius.
The fact remains that much of Pompeii did resemble a building site in 79AD, with houses as well as the forum, still undergoing repairs. But this activity was not a result of the 62AD earthquake.
Between the earthquake and 79AD, the seismic activity in the region of Vesuvius did not cease as the volcano slowly returned to life. In 64AD, a further earthquake destroyed the theatre at Naples during a visit from the emperor Nero. Others no doubt occurred but remained unrecorded.
It was probably because of these ongoing quakes or tremors that much of Pompeii remained covered in scaffolding, right up until the moment of its final destruction.
Dobbins, J J and Foss, P W, (eds) (2008) “The World of Pompeii”. Routledge: London and New York
Grant, M, (2005) “Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Cities of Vesuvius”. London: Folio Society