A Walk Down the Via Consulare
An August afternoon in A.D. 59, a wayfarer enters Pompeii. Exactly 20 years later a sudden torrent of volcanic pebbles (lapilli) and an avalanche of noxious gases will violently bury the city along with its fleeing inhabitants. But today the city is vibrant and bustling. As the visitor passes through the monumental city-gate, he looks down the block and sees a series of doorways in the red and white walls along the broad street. Space is tight in this dense city, and a bar's customers spill out on to a bench on the street. Immediately the bar's proprietor spots the visitor. He shouts out, "You want some lentils and beans?" That sounds good, but first he goes through the next wide doorway along the road, into an inn where he stables his horse and rents a room for the night.
After eating a bowl of lentils at the bar, he continues down the road towards the forum, and is astonished by a grand entrance of four columns, reaching more than twice any mortal man's height. This is the House of the Vestals, one of the largest houses in Pompeii. Water gushes from a drain into the street--fountains must lie within. The doors are open, and the visitor peers through the dark entrance hall to the atrium beyond. Light floods through the roof's compluvium, and the multicolored marble surrounding a bubbling fountain sparkles. Another dark room follows, providing a dramatic shadow before another glittering pool beyond. Whoever lives here is rich. Very rich.
The next door is again tall but narrow, opening through a smoothly plastered wall. In the dull, gray stone impluvium of this house, there is no fountain skittering delightfully. Although it is quite large, the House of the Surgeon is no match for its neighbor's grandness. The traveler has no reason to go in, so he moves along, not noticing the street-side stairway to a set of second-story apartments or the small shop that follows.
His attention is caught by a large open room, which is dim below its pitched roof. The open space is a peculiar one, but the triangular roof reminds him of the temples sprinkled throughout any Roman city. A black-and-white mosaic spreads across its floor, and a marble platform, set deeply in the middle of the back wall, raises a statue high, so that the man's eyes are only at the level of the statue's feet. A shrill peal of hammers against anvils rings from the workshop next door, but a large shutter across the front of the workshop hides the smiths from view. More noisy barmen shout to the stranger from farther down the block. But he has eaten already and now only wants to fill his canteen at the public fountain by the old well at the bottom of the street.