Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

In Old Pompeii


The Lesson


Vesuvius from Portici, c. 1774–1776. Joseph Wright (British,  1734–1797), oil on canvas, 101 x 127 cm.

Vesuvius from Portici, c. 1774–1776. Joseph Wright (British, 1734–1797), oil on canvas, 101 x 127 cm.

Credit: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Frances Crandall Dyke Bequest.

Pompeii and the other ancient cities along the Bay of Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE continue to spark our imagination just as they did when they were dug up in the eighteenth century. The excavation of so many well-preserved examples of ancient Greco-Roman civilization helped inspire the Enlightenment and an interest throughout the Western world in ancient art and design, classical philosophy, and literature.

In this lesson, students take a virtual field trip to the ruins of Pompeii to learn about everyday life, art and culture in ancient Roman times, then display their knowledge by creating a travelogue to attract visitors to the site. They can also write an account of their field trip modeled on a description of Pompeii written by Mark Twain.

Guiding Questions

What can we learn about life in Roman times from the ruins of Pompeii?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • To learn about the history of Pompeii and its destruction
  • To gain insight into the past through archaeological interpretation
  • To synthesize historical information through imaginative writing

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan and links listed throughout.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Pompeii

Begin the lesson by providing students with background on Pompeii (pom-pay), a wealthy resort town in the Roman Empire that now offers us a unique window on life in those ancient times.

  • Help students locate Pompeii in Italy on the eastern shore of the Bay of Naples, near the base of the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. A map of this area is available through EDSITEment at the National Geographic Society Xpeditions.
  • Explain to students that,the area around the Bay of Naples was colonized by the Greeks as early as the 8th century BCE. Naples was called Neapolis meaning “new city” in Greek. By the second century BCE, the excellent climate, topography and spectacular views of the sea of the area attracted vacationing Romans — senators, other prominent citizens, and later the Imperial family. The Romans built lavish seaside retreats, called villas, along the bay in the shadow of the volcano where they could enjoy uninterrupted leisure, read and write, exercise, contemplate their gardens and the views, and engage in conversation with friends. Have students watch the short video clip produced by the National Gallery in conjunction with the exhibit Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples
  • Explain to students that Pompeii was destroyed during an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE that buried the city under more than six feet of ash and pumice. Although some people returned to try and recover items they had left behind, Pompeii was abandoned after this catastrophe, and over the centuries became largely forgotten.
  • Finally, in the early eighteenth century, the discovery of some marble inscriptions by a farmer digging a well led to the excavation and unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum. When news of the discoveries of the ancient cities spread throughout Europe, curious tourists flocked to the Bay of Naples, attracted by the still-active volcano, Vesuvius.
  • The publication of illustrations of the finds spawned a huge demand for the antique art, and reproductions of antiquities became a major industry that continued throughout the following century.
  • The ancient works of art evacuated along the Bay of Naples had an impact on the art, design and culture of Europe and eventually North America, where even rooms in the United States Capitol were decorated in the Pompeii style
  • For more detailed information about the art and culture of Pompeii have students read the brochure which accompanies the Pompeii and the Roman Villa exhibit available from the National Gallery of Art website. The Children’s Discovery Guide to the exhibit is especially recommended. The thumbnail images in this lesson are photographs of photographs of artifacts from the cities buried by Vesuvius and are part of a current exhibit, Pompeii and the Roman Villa, at the National Gallery of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • For more detailed information about the destruction and rediscovery of Pompeii, see the article on Pompeii from The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites available through EDSITEment at the Perseus Project website.
Activity 2. Eyewitness Account

To help students take a first step on their journey back in time to the days of Pompeii, have them read an eyewitness account of its destruction written by Pliny (pli-nee) the Younger (62-c. 114 C.E.). Translations of two letters, Epistle 6.16 and Epistle 6.20 in which Pliny describes what happened on that terrible day are available through through the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

  • Help students locate the places named in the letters: Misenum (my-see-num), now called Miseno, on the west shore of the Bay of Naples, across from Pompeii, and Stabiae (sta-bee-eye), now called Castellammare di Stabia, on the bay south of Pompeii on the bay.
  • Focus discussion first on the events Pliny describes: the "cloud" of ash and pumice that marks the eruption of Vesuvius; the steady hail of ash and pumice that darkens the sky and mounds up to block the shore; the sheets of lightning crackling over the volcano (caused by dust particles charging the air with static electricity); tremors that knocked buildings off their foundations; fumes that combined with the dust to make breathing almost impossible; and an enveloping darkness that Pliny likens to "the black of closed and unlighted rooms." Point out in this discussion that Vesuvius did not encase Pompeii in molten lava; it buried the city under tons of ash in an eruption like that of Mount St. Helens in Washington state in 1980.
  • Follow up this discussion of the event by having students comment on the glimpses of everyday Roman life we can find in Pliny's letters. Note, for example, how much time Pliny and his uncle devote to reading and study, and how they mark the day with meals and baths. Note also how they seem to spend much of their time outdoors. Point out the family's reliance on slaves -- to fetch shoes, carry messages, serve meals, lend physical support. Have students comment on the way Pliny characterizes the women in his story -- Rectina, who begs Pliny's uncle to save her, and his own mother, who begs Pliny to save himself. Contrast these portraits with Pliny's characterizations of his uncle and himself, who both exhibit an almost incredible stoicism in the face of danger. Finally, compare the behavior of Pliny and his uncle with that of the townspeople who surround them. What picture of Roman society emerges from these brief vignettes?
Activity 3. The Ruins

To help bring this ancient society to life, introduce students to the ruins of Pompeii with a video tour of the Forum Baths, available through EDSITEment at the Pompeii Forum Project website. This series of Quicktime videos, narrated by a member of the project team, explains the institution of the Roman bath and leads one through the different stages of the bathing process. Use the links on the floor plan of the Baths to move from the Entrance to the Apodyterium (a-poe-die-tare-ee-um) or dressing room, the Palaestra (pal-eye-stra) or exercise courtyard, the Calidarium (cal-i-dar-ee-um) or hot room, the Tepidarium (teh-pi-dar-ee-um) or warm room, and the Frigidarium (fri-geh-dar-ee-um) or cold room. On this tour, students will begin to learn how archaeologists interpret architectural and design details to reconstruct the patterns of life that shaped Pompeiian society, and thus gain a foundation for their own explorations in the ancient city.

Activity 4. A Virtual Field Trip

Divide the class into study groups for a virtual field trip to Pompeii, having each group explore a specific aspect of city life. Links are provided below for exploring the Forum area, the city's main shopping district, and a selection of Roman homes. Middle school teachers in particular may wish to provide students with a limited selection of these images, some of which come with explanations while others are simply captioned. You and your students can explore beyond this set of images by visiting the websites from which they have been collected:

  • The Pompeii Forum Project: includes an extensive archive of images of the Forum area, 360-degree virtual reality scenes from different parts of the city, images of selected sites, and a "walking" tour of Pompeii's streets.
  • Perseus Project: includes a variety of Pompeii images with brief captions, which are accessible by typing "Pompeii" into the search engine on the Perseus Project homepage. Click the "Thumbnail" button on the search results page to view the image collection.

A detailed map of Pompeii, which labels most of the sites students will visit, is available through a link on on the Bellum Catilinae website. Click the "Conjectural Map of Pompeii" link at the bottom of this page to view an indexed map.

The Forum

Shopping District

  • Pompeii Map with Panoramic Images: click "Pompeii Map" and use the links on the map to access views along the Via dell'Abbondanza.
  • Thermopolium, another view
  • Thermopolium, another view showing a painted shrine to the lares (lare-eez) or guardian spirits of the place
  • Bakery, another view showing the oven
  • Bakery, another view showing the millstones used to grind flour
  • Street Scenes: thermopolium, bakery, latrines and sewers, street signs, and the stepping stone crosswalks that let pedestrians avoid wading through the sewage that flowed through Pompeii's streets


Activity 5. Compare and Contrast

Provide students with a set of questions to guide their explorations of Pompeii. Encourage them to look for resemblances between life in Pompeii and life in a modern-day city or town, using their imaginations to reach back across the centuries and fill in the picture of this vanished society. For example:

  • Have students try to visualize the site as it appeared two thousand years ago. What is missing from the scene (e.g., doors, roofs, furniture, wall decorations, litter, animals, etc.)? What sorts of people do you imagine coming to the site? What do you see them doing? How do they interact? Encourage students to draw or describe the scenes they envision.
  • Have students compare the site to a similar location in a modern-day city or town. What is our equivalent to this place? How do we behave there? When and why do we go there? What similarities help us understand Pompeiian society? What differences remind us that the ancient world is remote from the world of today?
  • Have students make a list of the most interesting features they notice on their field trip. These can be details explained in the image captions (such as the stepping stones built into Pompeii's streets to allow pedestrians to avoid the sewage that flowed there) or details that simply catch a student's eye.
  • Have each study group make a list of questions they would like to ask an expert on Pompeii. These can be used as the basis for research projects, but their immediate purpose should be to help students identify significant aspects of the city and begin to formulate ways to investigate further.
Activity 6. Present Your Findings

At the conclusion of their field trips, have each group give a brief report on the area of Pompeii it explored, explaining the site to class members who investigated other parts of the city. Students can use print outs of images for their presentations, or download images to create a computer slide show. Encourage students to imagine themselves travel agents as they prepare their reports, aiming to attract tourists to their part of the city. If time permits, students can also create brochures highlighting some of Pompeii's chief attractions.

Activity 7. Twain and Pompeii

Close the lesson by having students read Mark Twain's description of Pompeii from Innocents Abroad, which began as a series of letters describing his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 and became the best-selling of all his books during his lifetime. "The Buried City of Pompeii" is Chapter 31 in Innocents Abroad and is available through EDSITEment at the Mark Twain in His Times website. Click "Innocents Abroad" on the website's homepage, then click "Browse etext" and select "Chapter 31." Students can compare Twain’s words with photographs taken in the nineteenth century by Giorgio Sommer available on the National Gallery of Art ‘s website.

  • Compare Twain's impressions of the city with the students' own. How does he "make sense" of the archaeological record? What does he add to the scene with imagination? What "lessons" does he take away?
  • Have students write their own account of Pompeii, or of a specific site in Pompeii, modeled on Twain's description of his visit. Students can write this account in letter form, imagining themselves telling a friend about what they have seen, or they can put the account in story form, following Twain's example by making themselves the story's main character.

Extending The Lesson

  • Provide students with a behind-the-scenes look at the work of archaeologists by visiting the "Three Trenches" section of the Pompeii Forum Project website. This is a three-part Quicktime video report on excavations that the project team carried out at Pompeii to learn more about how the Forum area of the city took shape. "Trench 1" presents evidence that a street was re-routed to make way for an extension of the Forum's Temple of Apollo in the decades before Pompeii was destroyed. "Trench 2" documents modifications to a house on the re-routed street that were contemporary with reconstruction of the Temple. "Trench 3" records a search for evidence of reconstruction on the Forum-side of the Temple, and reveals the kinds of surprises archaeologists often encounter in their work.
  • The Pompeii Forum Project also provides an online activity for Latin students, "Read a Latin Inscription from Pompeii!," which guides students step-by-step through the process of deciphering and translating an inscription on the Eumachia Building.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Latin
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • Architectural analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources