Pompeii an Example of the End of the World

Pompeii an Example of the End of the World

A look at the location of Pompeii and how it relates to the end of the world.

Edwin R. Thiele, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Emmanuel Missionary Colleg

Ancient Pompeii—one day the sinful but one of the richest, gayest, most beautiful, and carefree cities of the Roman world, and the next day nothing but a deso­late, forsaken mass of ruins lying prostrate in the dust.

The location of Pompeii seemed to be almost perfect—just off the coast of the beautiful blue Mediterranean on the Gulf of Naples in southern Italy. The city was on rising ground, less than a mile from the foot of Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic na­ture of the soil made for extreme fertility, and the climate was ideal. Apples and figs, almonds and melons, wheat and millet—vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts were produced in great abundance and with a minimum of effort.

Earlier eruptions of Vesuvius and the terrible destruction wrought were forgotten by later generations. The once-angry vol­cano had become quiescent and was looked upon as a beneficent friend. People settled on the slopes, peacefully building their homes and cultivating their crops on the cold and disintegrating lava.

With the passing of the years Pompeii became increasingly attractive to the citi­zens of Rome. Wealthy and influential citizens of the capital found here the se­clusion, peace, and beauty they so much desired. Flourishing vineyards produced excellent wine that proved a great attrac­tion. Skilled architects took advantage of the beautiful situation provided by the combination of mountain and sea, and produced many villas of surpassing beauty. Everything about the houses indicates a desire for gaiety and good living. Everyday cares were kept at a distance, and life was to be enjoyed to the utmost.

Pompeii is the delight of the archeologist seeking to recover the facts of a bygone age, for it provides vivid and detailed pic­tures of life exactly as it was lived in the days when Rome was at the height of its power and glory. The sudden, unexpected eruption of Vesuvius gave little opportu­nity for flight, and the total devastation of the city just as it was when disaster struck, left many of the streets, houses, temples, and shops exactly as they were on that terrible day of August 24, A.D. 79, when the city was overwhelmed.

With an awful convulsion that rocked the earth, the top of Vesuvius rent asunder, there was an ear-splitting crash, a blast of flame shot high into the heavens, and a rain of ashes, earth, and stones darkened the sun and covered everything within fifteen or twenty miles of the exploding volcano.

The whole of Pompeii was covered with a layer of cinders, volcanic stones, and fine white ash twenty feet in thickness. Houses, animals, and men were covered where they were at the hour of tragedy. The action of water on the ash consolidated the materials into a solid, moldlike mass about the bod­ies of men and women, birds, and house­hold pets, giving us today striking pictures of the horror and pain manifest in the countenances and the contorted bodies at the hour of death.

Pompeii was never rebuilt; only a few of the survivors succeeded in returning to the site and digging through the mass of vol­canic debris to their homes to recover any objects of value. Thus, the archeologist excavating there today finds the city as it was nineteen hundred years ago, with food still on the tables, watchdogs tied to their posts, paintings on the walls, utensils and pots in the kitchens, surgical instruments in the offices of surgeons, gladiators con­fined to their barracks equipped with weap­ons, armor, and helmets, horses laden with their burdens unable to get away from the hail of ashes and death, statuettes of exquisite beauty and grace in the gardens, and shops of silversmiths, wine merchants, blacksmiths, bakers, and grocers lining the chariot-rutted streets.

Interests of the Inhabitants

As one visits the ruins of Pompeii and makes his way through the streets and into the ancient houses and shops, temples and theaters, villas and baths, he is impressed by the fact that the inhabitants were in­terested in the lusts of the flesh and the pleasures of life. Religious subjects treated on the frescoes deal particularly with the love affairs of the gods. Venus is found re­peatedly in the arms of the stalwart Mars or the beautiful Adonis, Apollo is pictured as pursuing Daphne, and Jupiter's main concern seems to be the rape of one or an­other of the lovely goddesses, who in turn appear to take great delight in being se­duced.

A stately forum became the center of the pleasure city. Chariots were excluded, per­mitting the citizens to enjoy to the full this spot given over to leisurely strolls, visiting, business, worship of the gods, and recrea­tion. At the northern end of the forum was an imposing temple sacred to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. On the east were a number of public edifices, on the south shops, and on the west a basilica, which was the largest structure in the city, and a temple of Apollo.

Pompeii was a religious city, devoted to the service of the gods, but religion seemed to provide for as much of pleasure and gaiety in this life as in the hereafter. The mystery cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis was popular; her Pompeiian temple is the only structure dedicated to this Egyptian deity that has come down to us in a good state of preservation. The cult had a wide popular appeal since it provided for pleas­ures in this world as well as a life of bliss hereafter.

A temple to Venus stood west of the basilica. This goddess of beauty and love was regarded by the young men of Pompeii as their particular protectress. The goddess was not always revered, however, as is evi­denced by an inscription on a wall written by a man who reviled the goddess and swore that he would break her ribs and crush her skull because she had stricken him with an unrequited love.

Pompeii had many houses of pleasure. Its largest theater had seats for five thousand spectators and was excavated from the native rock on the side of a hill. Im­mediately adjoining it was a smaller, cov­ered theater for fifteen hundred spectators, devoted largely to comedy. Far larger was an amphitheater with seats for twenty thou­sand spectators. Here were carried on the cruelest of sports, where men fought to the death against their fellows or against wild beasts, or where beasts were pitted against each other. Successful gladiators became exceedingly popular, particularly with the women, and had their names and exploits scrawled on walls and pillars throughout the city.

The public baths of Pompeii were not only for the practical purpose of washing but were also centers of amusement and recreation. Some were of enormous size with elaborate equipment and luxurious appointments. There were great communal swimming pools, Turkish baths, cold or warm water baths, and apartments for ex­ercise, rest, or recreation. Walls were in­geniously heated by concealed ducts and water was supplied by subterranean pipes of lead.

Pompeii also had its houses of vice, still in mute existence today, portraying to our modern world something of the unmen­tionable depths to which men and women had fallen in their search for sinful pleas­ure. The Roman world was much more fla­grant, much more blatant, much more open, in its display of the flesh and its practice of vice than our world of today. Licentious dances and lecherous scenes of love are portrayed in public houses as well as in luxurious anterooms of private dwell­ings. The joys of Venus were unashamedly kept before the public eye, to excite lovers to the utmost.

Inscriptions on walls throughout the city are particularly revealing concerning the current of life and thought of the times. Men express threats against their enemies, candidates for public office call down curses on their opponents, men extol the charms of women, or express their bitter hatred and fury against their rivals. The bulk of these personal messages deal with love. That was the beginning and end of life, the center around which everything else revolved.

Drinking was as common in Pompeii as it is anywhere in the world today. Wine shops were everywhere in evidence along the city streets. Inscriptions on the walls portray their writers' limitless thirst. Wine was served with meals in exquisite drinking vessels of silver or glass.

And if the Roman loved to drink he also loved to eat. Much of the time and effort of life was given over to the question of food. Epicurean delights were vividly pic­tured in charming frescoes adorning din­ing-room walls. Guests are pictured enjoy­ing to the full the pleasures of life. Dishes served included oysters, fish, and almost every type of sea food, all kinds of meats, and such fruits as the grape, date, cherry, quince, and fig.

Their Final Concern

Even at the hour of death the inhabit­ants of Pompeii could not forsake their allegiance to the gods they had chosen. Everywhere the bodies of the dead give evidence of their final concerns in life. While the rain of fire and death was falling upon the doomed city, many lingered too long amid their treasures and pleasures to be able to escape. And when they finally decided to flee, it was not till they had collected their treasures which they were determined to take with them. One after another is found with his sack of gold, his hoard of coins, lovely jewelry, vessels of silver, or simpler objects of copper and bronze, with which they tried desperately to make their escape, only to sink into the ocean of ash, overcome with the sulfurous fumes, and perishing miserably with their treasures about them. Expressions of ut­most terror and pain are found on the faces of the dead, their beautiful garments thrown up about them in a last desper­ate struggle to keep off the hail of death. Gladiators and priests, babes nestling in the arms of parents, slaves still protecting the wealth of their owners, a maiden con­vulsively clutching her little bronze mirror, a mother and daughter wearing their cost­liest gowns and arrayed in their most pre­cious rings, bracelets, and buckles of gold, a father, a son, and a slave, trying to flee after attention had first been given to the household treasures—all went to a common and miserable death.

One wonders whether the inhabitants of Pompeii had any opportunity to under­stand the significance of what was taking place and whether the message of Chris­tianity had ever come to them. It probably had, but evidently it had not made much of an impression. A mysterious cryptogram and an impression of the cross may be se­cret signs of the presence of Christians in this distinctly heathen community. Paul on his journey to Rome about A.D. 61 found fellow Christians at Puteoli on the Bay of Naples, only a few miles from the scene of the disaster which was to come some eighteen years later, and so it is entirely possible that a community of Christians was in existence here. A painting on one wall in all probability represents the judg­ment of Solomon. On another wall were found scratched the words "Sodom, Gomor­rah." Thus it is clear that there were at least some in the city who were impressed by the enoi nifty of its sins and the awfulness of the judgment that was to take place.

The destruction of Pompeii is only a faint echo of the much more terrible and universal destruction ultimately to engulf the world. Peter foretells the day of the Lord which "will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). John gives the following vivid description of that day: "And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief cap­tains, and the mighty men, and every bond­man, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the moun­tains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?" (Rev. 6:14-17).

Jesus likened that day to the days of Noah: "As the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (Matt. 24:37-39).

Jude gives the following instruction con­cerning the significance of Sodom: "Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them . . . , giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example" (Jude 7).

Though disaster will overwhelm the world, God's people will find refuge in Him: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea" (Ps. 46:1).

In the awful destruction of Pompeii we today may see a prototype of the greater destruction soon to overwhelm the world.


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Edwin R. Thiele, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, Emmanuel Missionary Colleg

January 1958

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