Undoubtedly when thinking of classical sites in Italy, the wonders of Rome as well as the miraculously preserved windows into Roman life that are Pompeii and Herculaneum are what immediately spring to mind. I visited these two blockbuster sites whilst excavating near Naples and before visiting I couldn’t really picture what the sites looked like in my head. They were both amazing with my archaeology friends and I having heated arguments over which site we preferred.
Herculaneum has better preservation, is less touristy and more of the houses were open to the public however for me Pompeii was definitely my personal favourite. The size of it was exhausting, especially if you forget it’s essentially a preserved town with no public transport where you can go inside nearly every building, even if some were sadly closed for renovation. To me even the crowds of tourists in the forum gave a great idea of the bustle of the original Roman town. But then you are talking to someone whose favourite place is London.
However whilst Pompeii and Herculaneum receive the most attention, the Naples area is filled with other amazing classical sites that I really feel deserve a mention. Starting with…
Villa Poppaea, Oplontis
One metro stop away from Pompeii in the rather soulless town of Torre Annunziata is this sprawling villa, said to have belonged to Nero’s wife Poppaea (who he kicked to death whilst pregnant. Lovely). To understand the scale, the second picture below shows the corridor where clients waited to perform the morning ritual of salutatio for their wealthy patrons; a jumbo doctor’s waiting room if you will. The wall-paintings are some of the most colourful and best preserved of any site in the area, with even the typical Roman columns being preserved in their original state a.k.a plastered and painted with intricate patterns not the bare white columns we tend to think of.
The Complesso Monumentale San Lorenzo Maggiore:
Several feet underground, beneath a rather bare gothic church lies the original street level of Graeco-Roman Naples. Here lie remnants of Neapolis’ original paving stones and the amenities of a covered market including a bakery, communal laundry and dyeworks, complete with original shop counters and slots for the iron shutters. There is also another Roman site bang in the centre of Naples– a bathhouse under the amazing Santa Chiara, however the site is so covered in scaffolding it’s hard to visualise and relatively underwhelming.
The Campi Flegrei/Phlegraean Fields
This small area of settlements to the west of Naples is riddled with Greco-Roman sites. The one problem is it is nearly impossible to see most of them easily by public transport however I managed to see several despite the lady in Pozzuoli tourist office telling me it was impossible to see the main ones in a day. This is despite the fact that I got kidnapped by a bus driver who when I got on an empty bus to ask its destination, who drove off and then proceeded to have a half an hour discussion with another bus driver about whether he was going to where I wanted. Thankfully a passenger got on and told me where I wanted to go was the final destination. Oh and the map from the tourist office wasn’t actually to scale so walking took a while longer than expected. Anyway enough reminiscing about screaming “Stai andando a Cuma?” on repeat and pronouncing it slightly differently every time in the vain hope the bus driver would give me a straight answer/finally understand.
In Pozzuoli are the remains of the Romans’ third largest amphitheatre and whilst the overground arena is a bit bedraggled despite once even being flooded for mock sea battles, the area below ground where the animals where kept really makes you appreciate the mechanics of putting on gladiatorial games. There are also two small temples in Pozzuoli including one dedicated to Neptune which has been built into a sports centre.
The baths at Baia (they’re actually in Fusaro not Baia which is slightly confusing) were a personal highlight – being not any baths but the remains of a sprawling imperial bathing complex set over several levels in the landscape. Baia was effectively the Roman equivalent of Regency Bath where the well-to-do had sprawling coastal villas where they bathed in the local thermal waters. The baths are also much more idiosyncratic than any bath complexes you might be taught about. The temple of Mercury (misnamed as it’s in fact a mineral pool) also has an unsupported concrete dome older than the Pantheon. The finds from this site and the local area are in the nearby Castello Aragonese however its erratic opening times meant I couldn’t get inside.
The last site I visited is also the oldest, that of the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl – who in Virgil’s Aeneid directs him to the underworld. Apparently the entrance is the nearby Lake Averno, if anyone fancies a visit.
Last and definitely by no means least, visiting Ancient Greece was one of the high-points of my time in South Italy because just an hour’s train ride from Naples are some of the best preserved temples in the Greek world dating to around the 6th century BC – three dedicated to Neptune, Hera and Athena. This is due to the fact much of southern Italy was in fact a Greek colony and only later incorporated in the Roman empire. I never realised I’d be so excited to see a Doric column before (I can fit in one of their grooves, they’re so large). The museum is also far better maintained than the more famous one in Naples, containing tortoise-shell lyres, highly painted statues of Zeus and other gods alongside clay offerings of fruit for the dead. The wall-paintings are also amazing preserved considering how old the paint is. The most famous – the tomb of the diver was however in an exhibition in Naples and apparently represents someone travelling between this world and the underworld, making it one of the earliest examples of classical art.