The Streets of Pompeii - Photos of the Roman City

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Pompeii Street Sign

Pompeii Street Sign
Pompeii Street Sign. Marieke Kuijjer

Pompeii, a thriving Roman colony in Italy when it was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, is in many respects a symbol of what archaeologists yearn to discover--an intact image of what life was like in the past. But in some respects, Pompeii is dangerous, because although the buildings look intact, they've been reconstructed, and not always carefully. In fact, the rebuilt structures aren't a clear vision of the past at all but are clouded by 150 years of reconstructions, by several different excavators and conservators.

The streets in Pompeii might be an exception to that rule. Streets in Pompeii were extremely varied, some built with solid Roman engineering and underlain with water conduits; some dirt paths; some wide enough for two carts to pass; some alleys barely wide enough for pedestrian traffic. Let's do a little exploration.

In this first picture, an original goat insignia built into the walls next to a corner has been embellished with a modern street sign.

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Tourists in the Streets of Pompeii

Tourists Cross the Street at Pompeii
Tourists Cross the Street at Pompeii. Giorgio Cosulich / Getty Images News / Getty Images

These tourists are showing us how the streets worked--the stepping stones kept your feet dry and out of the rainwater, slops, and animal waste that would have filled the streets of Pompeii. The road itself is rutted with a couple of centuries of cart traffic.

Imagine the streets filled with horse-drawn carts, rainwater, human waste chucked from second story windows and horse manure. One of the duties of the Roman officer called an aedile was responsible for keeping the streets clean, helped along by the occasional rainstorm.

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A Fork in the Road

Pompeii Street Split
Pompeii Street Split. Marcela Suarez

A few of the streets were wide enough for two-way traffic; and some of them had stepping stones midway. This street forks off to the left and right. None of the streets in Pompeii were wider than 3 meters across. This one shows clear evidence of Roman engineering as seen in many Roman roads which connected the various cities of the Roman empire.

If you look closely at the center of the fork, you'll see a round opening at the base of the wall. Scholars believe holes like that were used to tether horses in front of shops and homes.

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Ominous View of Vesuvius

Street Scene in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the Background
Street Scene in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the Background. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This street scene in Pompeii has a lovely view,  ominously enough, of Mt. Vesuvius. It must have been central to the city long before the eruption. There were eight different gateways to the city of Pompeii--but more of that later.

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One-Way Streets in Pompeii

Narrow Pompeii Street
Narrow Pompeii Street. Julie Fisticuffs

Many streets in Pompeii were not wide enough for two-way traffic. Some researchers believe that some of the streets may have been permanently one-way, although markers indicating a traffic direction have not as yet been identified. Archaeologists have identified predominant directions from some of the streets by looking at the patterns of the ruts.

It is also possible that the one-way direction of some streets was 'as needed', with consistent movement of carts assisted by the clanging of loud bells, screaming merchants and small boys running around leading traffic.

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Very Narrow Streets of Pompeii

Pompeii Side Street
Pompeii Side Street. Sam Galison

Some streets in Pompeii can't possibly have held any but pedestrian traffic. Notice the residents still required a deep trough to let water flow down; the detail in the elevated side walk is entrancing.

At some houses and businesses, stone benches and perhaps awnings afforded a resting place for visitors or passersby. It's hard to know exactly--no awnings survived the eruptions.

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Water Castle at Pompeii

Pompeii Water Castle
Pompeii Water Castle. Aled Betts

The Romans were well known for their elegant aqueducts and carefully engineered water control. The tall ribbed construction at the left side of this picture is a water tower, or castellum aquae in Latin, that collected, stored and dispersed rainwater. It was part of a complex water system installed by the Roman colonists about 80 BC. The water towers--there are about a dozen of them in Pompeii--were built of concrete and faced with brick or local stone. They stood up to six meters in height and had a lead tank at the top. Lead pipes running underneath the streets took the water to residences and fountains.

At the time of the eruptions, the waterworks was being repaired, perhaps having been damaged by earthquakes in the months before the final eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

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Water Fountain at Pompeii

Pompeii Fountain
Pompeii Fountain. Bruce Tuten

Public fountains were an important part of the street scene in Pompeii. Although the wealthiest Pompeii residents had water sources within their houses, most everyone else relied on public access to water.

Fountains were found at most of the street corners in Pompeii. Each had a large spout with constantly running water and a tank made of four large blocks of volcanic rock. Many had whimsical faces carved into the spout, as this one does.

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End of the Excavations at Pompeii

Pompeii Street
Pompeii Street. Mossaiq

It's probably fanciful of me, but I surmise that the street here is relatively unreconstructed. The wall of earth on the left-hand side of the street includes unexcavated portions of Pompeii.

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More Information on Pompeii Streets

Paved Street in Pompeii at Sunrise
Paved Street in Pompeii at Sunrise. Franco Origlia / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Sources

For more on the archaeology of Pompeii, see Pompeii: Buried in Ashes. Also, see the Walking Tour of the House of the Faun.

Beard, Mary. 2008. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.