The last day of Lucius Vetutius Placidus in Pompeii

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On the slopes of the Mount Vesuvius, in the quiet city of Pompeii, Indagini e Misteri tells the chronicle of a dramatic day. The life of Lucius Vetutius Placidus is the pretext to reconstruct the events of that tragic August 24 of 79 AD, in which an unpredictable event upsets the lives of thousands of people. A fascinating journey back into the history and life of a wealthy Roman citizen.

 

It is the morning of August 24, 79 AD, the sun has just risen and the laughing town of Pompeii in Campania is slowly awakening. A light breeze comes from the nearby shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea; the Roman Civita is situated on a plateau a few tens of meters high.

 

Entrance to the archaeological area

 

Lucius Vetutius Placidus is expected from another working day. He’s been awake for a few hours already. Lately, business is not so bad, but Lucius has to organize the activity in time, before the village is filled with people and every insula awakens from sleep.

 

An Insula with garden

 

The thermopolium

Lucius’s wife, Ascula, is still sleeping and today it’s his turn to open the shop, just a few meters away from his home. As a first matter, Lucius decides to count the money earned in the previous days: 1385 bronze coins, equal to about 585 Roman sesterces. Lucius, satisfied of the amount, puts the entire sum in the usual closet. It is a dolium, a large terracotta container, embedded in the masonry of the sales counter.

It is not the only dolia in his shop: there are many others that contain food or drink, such as the fine wine produced on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. In fact, Lucius’ activity is a thermopolium: an ancient food shop. The Pompeians are used to having their meal outside their home, and the approximately 89 thermopolia scattered along the city guarantee this service.

 

 The Thermopolium of  Lucius Vetutius Placidus

 

Lucius, however, does not fear competition: his workshop is located along one of the most important and busy streets of Pompeii. Even its name is synonymous of good business: “Street of Abundance”. Furthermore, its exercise is well protected by the lari, the gods protectors of the house. Lucius has erected in the shop a splendid depiction of the lararium, where Mercury and Dionysus are represented with some snakes. The gods of commerce and wine bless him, what could go wrong?

 

Pompeii

The depiction of the lararium

 

First signs

In previous days Pompeii had been hit by sporadic earthquakes. But this was nothing new, it happened quite frequently and the citizens were resigned. Still in memory was the earthquake of 62 AD that had forced many Pompeians to renovate their homes.

This explains why Lucius was not alarmed too much when at eight o’clock in the morning a new shock shook the sales counter of his shop. Pompeii began to be busy and the business could not be suspended. The morning passed quietly, without further warning signs, except for a slight cloud that got up from the summit of Mount Vesuvius.

Lucius Vetutius Placidus, and the other inhabitants of Pompeii too, had no element to evaluate what was about to happen. No one knows that Vesuvius is a volcano, and it is about to wake up after a lethargy of several centuries.

 

The eruption of Vesuvius

At about 1pm the nefarious truth began to appear throughout his entire cruelty. A violent roar announced the breaking of the solid magma stopper located at the crater of Vesuvius. A flying rain of ashes and lapilli began to fall on Pompeii.

Lucius began to run away along Street of Abundance, where there was a great crowd of frightened people.

Most Pompeians escaped in a hurry from the open spaces, such as the Large Theatre, the Gymnasium or the Suburban Baths to take shelter.

 

Suburban Baths

 

 Particular of the Suburban Baths

 

Pompeii

Inside the Suburban Baths

 

 The Gymnasium

 

Gymnasium, mosaic

 

 

Pompeii

The Amphitheater

 

In a few hours the city was buried by volcanic material until, the next day, it was reached by the lava flow released during the eruption. Pompeii was buried under six meters of magma.

Of the thousands of people who populated the city in AD 79, about one thousand and six hundred victims were found; some due to the collapse of residential roofs, others due to the arrival of burning clouds coming from Vesuvius.

We do not know if Lucius Vetutius Placidus survived or not. What is certain is that his workshop and his name will remain forever written in history.

Pompeii and the Sator Square

The excavations at the archaeological site of ancient Pompeii officially began in 1748 under the domination of the Bourbon dynasty. An intent of the royal family was, in fact, to increase its artistic heritage. The first finds were near the area of the Amphitheater, and mainly concerned coins, statues and frescoes.

Incredibly, by 1763 the archaeologists had not yet identified the city to which the ruins belonged, when a plaque with the inscription “Res Publica Pompeianorum” was found. For political reasons, the excavations were subsequently suspended until the first decade of the nineteenth century. Later Carolina Bonaparte, wife of Gioacchino Murat, personally led the excavations.

 

 

In 1845 the areas surrounding the Street of Abundance were excavated.

 

Pompeii

 

After the unification of Italy, the archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli directed the excavations. He divided the site into insulae and regiones.

 

Pompeii

An Insula

 

In 1899 the port of Pompeii was located near one of the canals of the Sarno river.

The facade of the Thermopoly of Lucius Vetutius Placidus was found at the Street of Abundance in 1912.

 

Pompeii

 

In 1930 the excavations of the “Villa of the Mysteries” were completed.

 

 

The Sator Square

In 1936 the archaeologist Matteo della Corte identified, on a column of the western portico of the Gymnasium, the Sator Square. The Sator of Pompeii is today kept, although no longer legible, at the Antiquarium.

 

 

A few years earlier, in 1925, the architect Mauri had found an incomplete representation of the same Square of the Sator, now lost, on a fragment of plaster in the house of Paquius Proculus.

After the Irpinia earthquake of 1980 it was decided to completely restore the excavations and only in 1987 the archaeologists restarted the research activities.

 

Pompeii

 

The excavation work continues still today. Following some collapses, in 2010, the European Union allocated 105 million euros for the restoration and hydrogeological safety of the site.

 

Samuele Corrente Naso