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Saturday, February 14, 2009

7. The story of Caius Julius Polybius


By Rossella Lorenzi

A day in the life of one of Pompeii's residents is re-created in this fictional account based on research findings.

Caius Julius Polybius woke up early that summer day in A.D. 79. He was excited: workers were to arrive soon to restore some rooms in his beautiful house.
He was proud of himself.

A descendant of a former slave who in A.D 14 wrote and read the testament of the emperor Augustus, he was now a wealthy and respected merchant.

He opened the front door and breathed deeply the cool air of the morning. Like every day, he read the graffiti on the facade of his house: "The mule drivers ask you to elect Caius Julius Polybius as duovir." He smiled.

At 65 he was finally enjoying an enviable social position, holding the most important public office in Pompeii.

He turned and began to walk through his house, stopping to look at a fresco and admire his treasure. Others in the city had more interesting pieces. How much he would have liked to have had the silver collection he saw in the House of the Meander!

Yet, he couldn't complain: on the table, lit by a bronze lamp sculpture of young Apollo, were bronzes, vases, a beautiful embossed tray, and the best piece of the collection, a Greek water container.

The house was bustling. Women were already in the kitchen preparing honey doughnuts and Julius' favorite dish, garum, a sauce made with marinated fish.

In the garden, a tortoise was sleeping under the fig tree, undisturbed by Julius' grandchild, who had just put down a tree ladder and a basket full of figs. The earth was shaking lightly beneath people's feet, but nobody cared. They were used to earthquakes, which occurred often in Pompeii.

But at noon a frightening roar made the 12 people in the house forget their lunch. Julius looked at Mount Vesuvius. A huge cloud spewed out of the massive volcano, and fire reached for the sky. Soon white and gray pumice began to fall from the column of smoke. A false night, darker and thicker than any night, descended on the city.

There was panic. People cried in terror, rushing into the streets looking for shelter. Like everybody, Julius and his family tried to escape, but a horse that had collapsed on the ground blocked their way. They returned under a shower of burning rock, flaming cinders, fragments of lava and pumice. They rushed into two rooms in the back of their house, away from the street.

They sat on the floor and waited for what seemed an eternity. In the darkness, they could hear groans of the dying and shrieks of the terrified, noises from the mountain, the sound of roofs collapsing. It was nothing compared to what was still to come.

At 7 a.m. strong winds howled down the streets, bringing sharp streams of ash, poisonous vapors and an unbearable temperature.

In Julius' garden, the tortoise withdrew into its shell for the last time.

 End of slide show. But click here for ongoing archaeological work in and around Pompeii. »


7. The story of Caius Julius Polybius