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Pompeii

pompeii_03I saw Pompeii in October 2008. Here is my account of it:

Pompeii is a town near Naples, Italy that was buried under six metres of ash when Mount Vesuvius blew its top on a summer day in the year 79. It was not uncovered till the 1800s, making it the best preserved town from Roman times.

It is a whole town: street after street, house after house. Even the pictures in the whorehouse are still there. Much of the town was destroyed, but much of it was covered so quickly in ash that it was preserved – even the shape and position of dying men and dying dogs. It is the closest thing we have to a time machine back to Roman times.

The way you can walk the streets of a lost world is like – Disney World! That is the only other place that is built to be another place and yet is not that other place. It is a strange feeling.

Something that Pompeii makes clear is the power of small, simple changes:

  • The streets are made of large stones – making them uneven, so you always have to always watch your step so you do not twist your foot or fall over. It makes walking down the street slow and harder than you know it has to be.
  • The writing had no spaces, making it hard to read.

Not only are the Romans gone from Pompeii, so is the smell. People threw their waste out into the street and it had to be regularly washed away down the street. That is why there are sidewalks and crossing stones.

Pompeii-couplePompeii did have running water: you can still see the lead pipes running along the streets. The rich had both hot and cold water – nearly 2000 years ago.

One building that is strangely familiar is the basilica, the courthouse, the largest building in town. Only bits of it are left but it had the same layout as St Patick’s cathedral in New York: a huge, long room with a line of inner columns to the right and to the left and a raised part at the far end – where the judge sat, and, in St Paritick’s, where the priest and the altar stand. It is as if  the Church took over the courthouses after the fall of Rome.

The pictures in the whorehouse are still there. They show different positions: you pick the one you want.

Pompeii was not built very high: most of the houses are one or two floors, all of them pretty small. And yet from the way Pompeii is built you can tell people were shorter then,  by like about a foot (0.3 m). Even the beds are shorter.

The rich had a courtyard inside their houses and pictures on their walls.

The bricks were not laid and cut so that the outer walls are smooth and even,  but some were made smooth by covering them with plaster.

– Abagond, 2009.

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ancient Athens

Athens was one of the great cities of Europe in Greek and Roman times. It reached the height of its glory under Pericles in the -400s. Even under Roman rule, when Greece was poor and broken, Athens was still a great seat of learning.

Today Athens is the largest and greatest city in Greece, but for a over a thousand years Constantinople, not Athens, was the centre of the Greek world, from the 300s till the 1400s. It was not till the 1800s that Athens was back on top.

In the middle of Athens is a long hill with a flat top: the Acropolis, the high city. Its sides go straight down in cliffs. On top are the remains of ancient temples, the biggest and most famous one being the Parthenon.

The Parthenon was the temple to the virgin goddess, Athena. Later it became a Christian church and then a Muslim mosque. In the 1600s the roof was blown off during a war between Venice and the Turks. In the early 1800s in the time of Napoleon the British carted away parts of it and put them in the British Museum (losing some of it at sea).  But even so it is still a thing of beauty.

The Parthenon was built in the -400s taking the place of an older temple to Athena. It was partly painted in red, blue and gold. Inside was a huge statue of Athena made of gold and ivory. Its columns are not all straight and the same but are made so the temple “looks right” when viewed from the ground. That is what makes it look more graceful than most temples.

So many people have visited it over the years that some of the rocks nearby have become smooth enough that you can slip on them.

The Parthenon was built when Athens was a great sea power, the centre of an empire. Athens sold olive oil and pots. It had a silver mine, university-level schools and some of the greatest thinkers and writers of all time. People like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Because of its writers, Athenian or Attic Greek became the way to write Greek for a thousand years. And because of its writers we know more about Athens than almost any other ancient city.

Athens could not grow enough of its own food. It was fed by wheat grown by Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea. So its food came from over the seas. That meant Athens needed to be a sea power: without control of the seas an enemy could cut off its food. Which is what did in Athens in the end.

After enjoying great wealth and power it overreached itself and found itself locked in a fight to the death with Sparta. Sparta won. Yet Athens shined brightest when it fell: those who lived through those times, like Plato, Thucydides and Aristophanes, produced some of its greatest works.

– Abagond, 2008.

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