To Pompei. Remarkably fine day; a most gratifying sight, full of the deepest interest to me. The most striking object I beheld was the Amphitheatre: the scenery around it is sublime, especially Vesuvius, whose original and beautiful shape was sacrificed to fulfil an act of Divine justice, in ending such scenes of cruelty and vice as existed in this profligate city ere it was destroyed. As an instance of what may be termed the grand, wholly without reference to the moral degredation [sic] of the entertainments prepared for the people in ancient times, one can conceive nothing more striking than the vast assemblies that once congregated in this spot, which is worthy of an assemblage of Christians meeting for purposes of worship—the most glorious of all the scenes this state of existence can be susceptible of.

The amphitheatre at Pompeii.

On 24 August 79 AD Vesuvius exploded. The town of Pompeii was engulfed in ash and a cloud of suffocating gas killed the citizens who remained there. Most had fled, but around 2000 people, some courageous, some reckless, and some no doubt taking advantage of the emptiness to loot, died instantly. The amphitheatre at Pompeii had been built a few years earlier and is the oldest still extant. It was used for gladiatorial combat. 

William Collins was a man who saw everything through the eyes of his Christian belief. A staunch protestant, almost a puritan, he saw Pompeii as a profligate, sensual, voluptuous town destroyed by an act of divine retribution. Its sexually explicit wall paintings, still omitted from most guide books, were no doubt as famous then as now. It is perhaps understandable that he found the temples and pagan statues offensive. But sad that he did not admire the wonderful works of art, still bright, painted on the walls of the houses.

Temple of Isis, a religion brought from Egypt 100 years earlier and still fashionable in Rome

A bronze fawn


Roman fighting ships, House of the Vetti, Pompeii

We also know that the Collins family visited Vesuvius itself. William says nothing about it. But 15 years later Wilkie visited the volcano with Dickens and Augustus Egg. He described the experience in a letter to his brother "The mountain was very quiet - no flame, no stones, no noise - nothing but thick clouds of sulphurous smoke. The last great eruption was in 1850, and it has altered Vesuvius, past my recognition. All is crater now, the moment you get ot the top - the hollow space we walked over when I visited it in 1838, exists no more." (To Charles Collins, 13 November 1853). Today the crater is completely quiet, after the eruption of 1944 blocked the top. Only the sharp-eyed can spot the small puffs of steam which escape.

Crater of Vesuvius, May 2001

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2001