The concept of an entire city engulfed by an erupting volcano fascinates kids, and the grisly details of Pompeii’s destruction don’t seem to faze them nearly so much as you might expect.
The ruins of Pompeii give a vivid glimpse into the daily lives of Romans who lived almost 2,000 years ago, frozen in time by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which still simmers as a backdrop to the ruined city. To kids who studied about the ancient Romans in school, it’s like stepping into their world.
But before you do, stop at the Antiquarium, a museum filled with displays that interpret the ruins and the eruption and help kids (and you) to understand more about what you’ll see. Among these are fragile artifacts that couldn’t be left where they were found, many of them everyday items like amphora and small household furnishings. Here, too, are plaster casts made from almost perfect molds left in the solidified ash by the bodies of those caught in the sudden rain of ash that quickly cooled into cement. Don’t be surprised if these are your kids’ favorite exhibit.
The Forum and Theaters
Entering the city, your first stop will be the Forum, the heart of any Roman town, surrounded by columns, shrines and the Temple of Jupiter. In front of the nearby basilica is the recently excavated home of Triptolemus, the second-century BC home of a prosperous family, with two atriums (courtyards) and two peristyles (columned gardens). Two large theaters are built into the slope; if you’re here in the summer, try to bring the children to one of the Sound and Light shows in the Teatro Grande. The smaller Teatro Piccolo is the earliest example of a roofed Roman theater, dating from about 75 BC. Be sure to go through the Triangular Forum to find the gladiators’ barracks, where inscriptions of their successes are carved on its columns.
The Stabian Baths
In the largest and best-preserved baths in Pompeii you will find the colonnaded garden, a swimming pool, several baths with stoves for heating the water and changing rooms. The well-preserved House of Menander still has the wooden roof over its atrium, a lovely colonnade and rooms decorated with scenes from Homer’s Iliad. Farther along Via dell’Abbondanza is the Thermopolium, a tavern that still has its drinking cups, a kettle, a stove, a lamp and the money left by the last customer on the counter. It’s these little indications of the sudden destruction that make Pompeii so compelling.
The New Excavations
Although since 1911 archaeologists left artifacts just as they were found, early excavators took everything to the museum in Naples, so the most interesting houses to see are those of Nuovi Scavi, newer excavations where wall paintings and furniture are still in place. Upper story balconies here are supported by girders, showing how these looked 2,000 years ago. Statues, frescoes, mosaics and furnishings are still here, even election posters on the walls. Dating from Pompeii’s final period, most of these homes and shops belonged to tradesmen. Look into the Cryptoporticus house for the magnificent painted frieze in a passageway. In Casa della Venere you’ll find a fresco of Venus on a seashell, one of the loveliest in Pompeii.
House of the Vettii and the Amphitheater
Among the best frescoes are those in the House of the Vettii, home of middle-class brothers — it wasn’t just the aristocracy who lived well in Pompeii. The garden has been replanted so you can see what a Roman garden looked like, and frescoes in the triclinium cover the walls completely with brightly colored mythological scenes. The massive Amphitheater at the far end of Pompeii seated 12,000 people and is the oldest Roman amphitheater that survives, dating from 80 BC.
Planning a Visit
Pompeii is easy to reach from Naples or Sorrenteo, via the Circumvesuviana trains that connect the two cities. If you plan to visit both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the combined ticket is cheaper than two separate entrance fees. Be sure to bring plenty of water as well as hats and sunscreen, as there are few facilities inside the ruins.