Pompeii’s geography in terms of position, local climate and terrain was the foundation of it’s development in every sense. There are similarities and differences with the geography of Ancient Rome: Rome was essentially built on and around hills in a marshy area at the mouth of the river Tiber, the geography of Pompeii on the other hand was dominated by the mountain to the north-west and its immediate view over the sea. Like Rome however it commanded a good position in terms of control over trade routes and good access to the river and water ways which at the time were by far the most efficient form of goods transport.
Pompeii is situated in the region of Campania, to the south of Rome. The region is remarkably well delimited both geographically and historically. On the northern side we have the river Volturno, to the east and south we have the Apennines and the Sorrento peninsula. In the middle we have a vast plain made fertile by relatively recent volcanic activity. To the west lies the sea.
The image below shows these features looking inland from the sea, so Mount Vesuvius is on the left hand side and the Sorrento peninsula is on the right. It is important to note that sedimentary deposition has left Pompeii further inland than it was in Roman times.
Pompeii’s position made it an obvious settlement for the Italic peoples of the Campanian region: the Oscans & Samnites, cousins of the Latins, founders of Rome to the north. Around the 6th century the Greek advance from the south was halted here by the Etruscans who dominated the regions northwards. It was thus a natural melting pot of cultures and influences.
The bay of Naples has always acted as a fulcrum for the region and provided ideal harbours for international trade. Puteoli (modern Pozuoli) in particular had a thriving international mercantile community since the second century BC which established routes with Gaul to the north as well as the Hellenistic east. This clearly meant an influx of great wealth and culture and it is interesting to note that some of the religious cults of the East were present here well before they reached Rome.
The names of the most pronounced families of Pompeii found in the excavations have proved to be of Samnitic origin with heavy doses of intercultural mixing. Samnitic inscriptions have also been found as well as an evident mixture of building and architectural approaches pertinent to the different cultures present.
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Greek settlers mixed with the genetics of the local Italic peoples enabled the region to withstand the pressure of Rome’s expansion and at the same time achieve artistic and cultural excellence. It opened Campania to the influence and trade with the Eastern Mediterranean and cultures which Alexander the Great had conquered, including Egypt for example to the East. Studies of amphoras show that there was extensive wine trade with Gaul to the north whilst the influence in Pompeii was undoubtedly Greek and even oriental/north African, for example in the religions, town planning and other varied aspects of the city. These northern trade routes were likely learned from the Etruscans.
The Campanian region not only had a location suited to trade but also had the fortune of a temperate climate and extremely fertile soils ideally suited to vineyards and olive groves. Wine and oil production was therefore a fundamental engine for the local economy and the city’s life. The combination of warming climate and foreign military campaigns enabled new foreign plants and crops to be acclimatised, grown and traded.
Proximity and annexation to Rome, achievement of full citizenship and inflow of Roman families completed the recipe of this cultural melting pot with its local landed gentry, greek arts and crafts, Etruscan love for trade and Rome’s “Pax Romana”. It was hence a rich provincial city which in spite of its own troubles was well placed to ride Rome’s gravy train like many others. It is not surprising that the local, largely rural population grew from a couple of thousand people in the earliest days to some 20,000 people at the time of the eruption.
Other aspects of Pompeii’s geography:
A look at the architecture of ancient Pompeii and of the site over which it was built also shows us how the city’s shape and town planning was heavily influenced by the site over which it was built: A prehistoric lava flow which had made a N-S sloping ledge 40m above sea level. Various forms of detritus had levelled the ledge out to a degree although on the whole there was only one relatively flat area on which the Forum was eventually built. The rest of the city is very much dislevelled and sloping.
Whilst the city saw some 5 or 6 successive waves of intervention, the original city was clearly built on the flattest and best exposed area of the ledge. The subsequent extension of the city walls was forced by local geography to follow an organic rather than geometric shape. The city’s road system is also a superposition of Greek rigour on top of pre-existing situations and stratographic constraints.