Pompeii, Province of Naples, Campania, Italy

Pompeii by Bastille

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And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Grey clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above Read full Lyrics
On the hazy Paris morning of July 14, 1789, the patience of French revolutionaries ran thin while negotiating with Governor de Launay, the current commander of the garrison at the Bastille. Upon depletion of the crowd's endurance, the storming of the Bastille began, symbolically crowned as the beginning of the French revolution. One hundred and ninety-seven years later, Daniel Campbell Smith, the lead singer of the band Bastille, was born. Marketed as Bastille, named for the French National Day with which Dan shares his birthday, the band's debut album, Bad Blood, went straight to #1 in Britain upon its release in March 2013.

The storming of the Bastille, however, is not the only historical reference associated with the band. The fourth single taken from Bad Blood, "Pompeii," has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Borne from intrigue by reports that many of the bodies of Pompeii victims were discovered preserved in the exact position in which they died, Smith romanticized in his lyrics thoughts the victims might have had in the moments before darkness overcame them.

This victim of the 79 AD Mount Vesuvius eruption appears to be praying
Photo: Floriano Rescigno, Dreamstime

Following the final occupation of Pompeii by Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 89 BC, the city was finally annexed by the Roman Republic. After this, Pompeii went through the process of infrastructural development. The most notable additions were an amphitheater, a Palaestra with a swimming pool, and an aqueduct that provided water for street fountains and public baths. The Amphitheater of Pompeii is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater, and the earliest known to have been built out of stone rather than wood. Boasting what specialists refer to as an optimal design for crowd control, this historical landmark is still being used for entertainment in modern times.

The earlier architectural development of the city was most likely what attracted wealthy citizens, with many Romans choosing Pompeii as their holiday destination. Located about five miles from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii housed many of Rome's most prestigious citizens, living in elegant houses or elaborately built holiday villas. Scholars estimate that there were as many as 20,000 people living in and around Pompeii on the eve of what would prove to be the deadliest eruption of Vesuvius. The wrath of the mountain began on August 24, 79 AD, just one day after the festival of Vulcanalia, which celebrated the Roman god of fire. The eruption began when the volcano spewed a cloud of debris nearly 12 miles high into the air, covering the nearby regions with 16 feet of volcanic ash. The debris was followed by a lethal combination of pumice and ash, reaching approximately 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, which tumbled down the mountain toward Pompeii at 70 miles per hour. In 24 hours more than 2,000 people were dead, overtaken where they stood, covered and preserved for eternity by this deadly blanket.

The city remained undisturbed until 1748, when explorers searching for artifacts arrived and began to dig. These explorers discovered that the remains of Pompeii were yet undisturbed, exactly as they had been 2,000 years before, with unaltered buildings and bodies frozen in their last moments of searing agony. A task that has been going for nearly three centuries, with more than a third of the city still hidden beneath the ash, the excavation of Pompeii has provided scholars with a rare look at what daily life was like in this Roman city.

The ruins of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background
Photo: Pulsara Gunawardhana, Dreamstime

Survivor Pliny the Younger provided an eyewitness account of the eruption, describing the eruption of Vesuvius as a "black and menacing cloud, split by twisted and quivering flashes of fiery breath," which opened "into extended shapes of flames, like lightning flashes, but greater." As the young Pliny and his mother fled, Pliny remembers "you could hear women moaning, children howling, and men shouting; they were crying out, some seeking parents, others children, and others wives, or recognizing them by the sound of their voices."

This sorrowful recounting of the chaos beneath the ashes makes it easier to imagine a potential conversation between victims, which Dan Smith has written, believing a dying couple could have posed such questions as "But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?" and "How am I gonna be an optimist about this?" With such a heartfelt and gut-wrenching message, it is no surprise that "Pompeii" was nominated for British Song of the Year and Alternative Rock Song of the Year in 2014.

Digging continues and discoveries are still being made in Pompeii. The most recent findings (c 2020) are exceptionally well-preserved figures of a slave and master; so well preserved that scientists were able to determine the younger of the two men (aged between 18 and 25) had several compressed vertebrae. We can only imagine what possible exchange these two doomed figures had in their last moments. Or better yet, perhaps Campbell Smith will one day update his lyric to include his own musings.

Stephanee Walker
July 14, 2022
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