Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pompeii: The Underbelly of the Ruins

By Bethany Youngblood

Photo: Sophie Hay (

We know that Pompeii was the site of one of the most memorable losses of life in the ancient world. But was it merely a natural disaster without cause? Could a literal writing on the wall shed light on what this doomed culture was like before it was buried alive? Is it possible that their own actions brought on the consequence of judgment just like the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Intro to Pompeii

Greek mythology speaks of the legendary Hercules and his battle against giants amidst fire.[1] Supposedly, generations later, the Greeks built a settlement under the shadow of the mountain where that battle took place. They named it Herculaneum in honor of this event. Another nearby town was named Pompeii, to celebrate the victory of Hercules. Pompeii later came under the influence of Rome and flourished with extensive building projects; it became an exclusive seaside playground for the elite. Fertile farmland, naval trade, exquisite villas, and wealth blessed the 10,000 residents of the city.[2] Pompeii had reached its golden era. But these citizens slept at the foot of a deadly mountain. Even with over a decade of warnings in the form of earthquakes, from A.D. 62 to 79, they were not persuaded them to abandon their seaside paradise.[3]

Early in the morning on August 24th, A.D. 79, the citizens were awakened by one final warning. Fire and smoke spat up out of the mountain until noon, when the destructive force of Vesuvius at last broke through. The explosion launched a cloud of pumice over 27 miles into the sky[4] and began to rain down ash on Pompeii. Hours later another explosion carried the ash even higher. Buildings in Pompeii began to buckle under the weight of layers of volcanic debris. People became trapped and unable to escape. Before midnight the cloud of ash fell in a smash of heat, making Pompeii into a literal oven for the population trapped inside.

The remains of the people and their city stopped in time were only brought back to light in A.D. 1755. For children, the story of the people of Pompeii being buried alive in ash is frightening enough. But an unpleasant underbelly has been discovered in these ruins, and it should grab the attention of us all.

Origin of a Word: Pornography

Porn. This one word can have a host of negative connotations in our society today. It is connected to several different forms of sexual behavior. But the word did not always have the implications that it does for us today. Pornography is a word made up of two Greek words. It combines porni (“prostitute”) and graphein (“to write”)[5]. By this definition, pornography was anything that illustrated the life of a prostitute. However, when Pompeii was excavated, some new definitions were added to the word.

In homes, in bathhouses, and even on public walls were images of pornographos[6]; the depictions of prostitutes in the selling of their wares. Besides these, there were other depictions that the Victorians of the time labeled “obscene”, and they were correct to do so. Adding obscene to the list of definitions for pornography meant that the illustrations on the walls now included the taboo, the disgusting, and the unnatural.[7] But for the residents of Pompeii these images were nestled in alongside beautiful landscapes and every day advertisements, to be seen by the wealthiest of men to the lowliest of slaves. They were as normal for the people of Pompeii as images of popular sodas are for us.

The Writing on the Wall – Sodom and Gomorrah

But not everyone was at ease with these images. It is speculated that some in the city of Pompeii saw these things and made a poignant connection between the images and the practices of two other cities known for the judgment brought down on them from heaven: Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 19. These two cities were known in the Old Testament for committing grave sin: they practiced gross sexual immorality, (Genesis 19:4-5; Jude 7), they were prideful, wealthy and prosperous yet didn’t care for the needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50), their speech and deeds were against the Lord and they brought evil upon themselves (Isaiah 3:8-9). God judged them by raining down brimstone and fire over the cities to destroy them. They became an example and a reminder throughout the Bible of God’s judgment upon wickedness.

In an excavation of Pompeii, an inscription was found on the walls of “House 26”. The etching was scarcely visible to the naked eye, but the meaning was very important. It read, “Sodom and Gomorrah rah.”[8] These words were likely etched into the stone by someone who came upon the devastation left after the eruption. Because of the Biblical reference to the judgment of sinful cities, scholars speculate the writer was a Jew.[9]

Did God Judge Pompeii?

It is obvious by the inscription that someone who saw the destruction thought God judged Pompeii. In their mind Pompeii was on the same level as Sodom and Gomorrah and it deserved its judgment. The Bible clearly states that God is sovereignly at work in every nation around the world, in every era of history.

"Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O LORD, and You exalt Yourself as head over all. (1 Chronicles 29:11)

For the LORD Most High is to be feared, A great King over all the earth. (Psalm 47:2)

"Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?" (Isaiah 43:13)

It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings. (Daniel 2:21)

God is sovereign. He is just. He always desires man to turn from their sin and seek Him in repentance. Unfortunately our history is filled with nations who continually rejected His commands and sought their own pleasure instead.

So was the eruption a judgment from God? The sheer availability and exposure to sexual immorality in Pompeii is staggering. (We have only scratched the surface in the space of this article.) And it does seem like there is a connection because Sodom and Gomorrah and Pompeii were all destroyed with fire from heaven. But we cannot say with certainty that the devastation of Pompeii was a direct judgment from God due to their sin. We inhabit a broken, cursed world that has been rocked by natural disasters since the days of the Flood. We are prone to sometimes call those disasters judgment, but they are also part of the reality of this fallen world. (Many other cities have been buried and destroyed by volcanic eruptions – read our series on the Minoans for another example.)  But whether the eruption of Vesuvius was divine “judgment” or merely the movement of tectonic plates, God was still aware and involved
If the concept of God sending judgment upon a city disturbs you, remember Romans 1:28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” In Romans 2:2, Paul reminds us that “the judgment of God falls rightly on those who practice such things”.  He goes on to say that for those who do evil and disobey God there will be wrath and fury, tribulation and distress – all as judgment from God, if not in this life, it will surely come “on the day of wrath when God’s judgment will be revealed” (2:5). (The Old Testament has many examples of God judging the nations for their sin – see page 38-39 of The Secrets of Ancient Man for a great chart outlining several of these examples.)

Pompeii was the site of one of the most tragic losses of life in the ancient world. Many deaths could have been avoided if the citizens had heeded the warnings of the earthquakes and maybe if they had repented and turned to God (Romans 1 tells us that everyone knows God and all are without excuse). Looking at the underbelly of the ruins has shed light on the city that once thrived in the now quiet streets. But the writing on the wall points to a culture consumed with seeking and attaining earthly pleasures. These pursuits can never truly satisfy and one way or another, they lead only to destruction. Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii met its end in fire.

Our own culture doesn’t sound all that different from the wickedness we described in these ancient cities. Can we learn from the destruction of these places? Will we heed the reminder that sin leads to death? Will we recognize the warning quakes for what they are – maybe it’s time for us to wake up and flee our own sin and immorality before it’s too late!

[1] Cartwright, Mark. “Pompeii”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. 17 Nov. 2012. Web.          
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jenkins, John Phillips. “Pornography”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.
[6] “pornography”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Web.
[7] Robinson, Sarah L. (2010) "Defining Pornography," Social Sciences Journal: Vol. 10: Iss. 1, Article 15. Available at: h p://
[8] Shanks, Hershel. “The Destruction of Pompeii – God’s Revenge?”. Bible History Daily.
[9] Ibid


  1. I had been reading about Pompeii not to long ago and just came across this article.
    I am really saddened to learn how wicked their culture was.
    I found this interesting regarding the earlier earthquake and then the eruption of Vesuvius that followed a few years later: [ On 5 February 62,[14] a severe earthquake did considerable damage around the bay, and particularly to Pompeii. It is believed that the earthquake would have registered between about 5 and 6 on the Richter scale.
    On that day in Pompeii, there were to be two sacrifices, as it was the anniversary of Augustus being named "Father of the Nation" and also a feast day to honour the guardian spirits of the city. Chaos followed the earthquake. Fires, caused by oil lamps that had fallen during the quake, added to the panic. Nearby cities of Herculaneum and Nuceria were also affected."
    "The eruption occurred on August 24 AD 79, just one day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire, including that from volcanoes." Source Wikipedia:

    As I read these I was reminded of something that I had heard about each of the seven plaques of God's judgement on Egypt directly referenced the false gods the Egyptians believed in. I need to study more on that though as I am not sure of the exact references.

    I am encouraged at how in your article you mention the balance we have to approach this in as God does judge nations but that also we do live in a sin cursed world so bad things can still happen because of natural forces no longer operating as they should. Also that even if someone is not necessarily judged on this earth there is coming a day when we all will come before God in the Judgement and give account for our deeds and only those who repented and put their trust in Christ for salvation will be saved.
    Thank you for the Article It is a blessing to learn more about history from a Biblical worldview and in a way that is more protected as there are a lot of details about the Pompeian's wickedness that I do not want to know.