In A.D. 79, the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii within two days. It was lost until an accidental discovery in 1599. Archaeologists have retrieved pieces of animal bone as well as plant material embedded in layers of ash. These, plus descriptions passed down by classical writers and the remaining mosaics and frescoes give insight into what flora and fauna were indigenous to Pompeii.
Pompeian gardens, which grew a variety of ornamental flowers as well as herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes, played a dominant part in daily life. Rose, fennel and myrrh were ingredients in perfume; as was, lily, laurel and myrtle. Pompeians cultivated typical Mediterranean herbs such as mint, chamomile, thyme, basil and rosemary for cooking as well as therapeutic purposes. Plants in that time also were used in religious rites.
The Vesuvian soil was fertile due to its volcanic properties as well as the vicinity of the Sarno river, which was used for irrigation. This fertility led to farming a number of different crops, for food and producing textiles. The sunny, drier hillsides were used to plant fruit and nut trees as well as grains such as wheat and barley. Samples of figs, pomegranates and walnuts were found at the excavation sites. Remains of olive and grape presses, used for extracting oil and juice for wine, also were unearthed.
Just like the Romans, Pompeians leaned toward the extravagant. Exotic animals and plants were imported, therefore, contributing to the spread of the species throughout provinces of the Roman Empire. Cats were imported from Africa and peacocks came from the Near East. Dogs served in hunting, security and as household pets. Donkeys were used in pulling carts or grindstones in mills. Remains of animals discovered at the dig were cattle, hog, goat and sheep. Proof of animal husbandry, raising poultry, doves and dormice, also were found.
The fertile ground was covered with thick, wild vegetation and varied according to altitude. The region spread from the sea to foothills to the mountain forests, which provided ideal habitat for small game, such as rabbits, and large animals, such as wild boar. The river and the sea nearby were brimming with fish and waterfowl. Nets and hooks recovered at the site were similar to those in use today. Crocodiles and hippopotamus also were portrayed in mosaics of the time.
Plants and Animals Today
Today, the region is still temperate and fertile; so many plants thrive at the site. Parasitic plants start in patches of bare earth, then grow outward and attack the surrounding buildings, dislodging tiles and mosaics. Ivy roots crumble the walls; undermine the foundations of the buildings. Feral dogs inhabited the buildings that were removed in the 1980s due to damage of footpaths, roads and walls. While pigeons that are also a particular problem have made Pompeii their home. The acidic nature of their feces wears away the roofs and walls of many structures.