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The Town Planning of Pompeii and Herculaneum Having Streets Aligned

Along Sunrise on Summer Solstice

Article  in  SSRN Electronic Journal · January 2016

DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2802439


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Amelia Carolina Sparavigna

Politecnico di Torino


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The town planning of Pompeii and Herculaneum having streets aligned
along sunrise on summer solstice
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna
Politecnico di Torino

In his book on the ancient town planning published in 1913, the British historian and archaeologist Francis
Haverfield discussed, among several other Italian towns, those of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both destroyed
and buried under meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. In this paper, starting from
his discussions, we will consider the orientation of their main streets, the decumani. As observed for other
Roman towns in Italy, these streets are aligned along the sunrise direction on summer solstice.

Submitted SSRN June 30, 2016.


Introduction In the fifth chapter of his book on the ancient town planning [1], Francis Haverfield is discussing
the Italian town-planning and the most ancient examples he found among them. In fact, as he observes, the
Roman Empire offers a huge mass of "certain facts, both in Italy and in the provinces" for studying the Roman
town planning. But Italy is also giving examples of town planning existing quite before that used by the
Romans for the coloniae of Late Republic and Early Empire.
For the Italian settlement, Haverfield began with the Terramare of the Bronze Age, between 1400 and 800 BC.
Of the Terramare, he wrote that more than a hundred of these "strange settlements" existed and that they
have been examined by "Pigorini, Chierici, and other competent Italians" [2-4]. Haverfield discusses the
Terramara of Castellazzo di Fontanellato, which has a regular layout. Then he shows another regular scheme,
that of a little Etruscan town which stood outside of Etruria, close the modern Marzabotto. After, Haverfield is
discussing Pompeii and Herculaneum. For what concerns the first town, he found some features which
resemble the trapezoidal outlines of the Terramare.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, both destroyed and buried under meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of
Vesuvius in AD 79, will be the subject of this paper too, for what concerns the astronomical orientation of some
of their streets. Both have the main streets, the decumani, aligned along the sunrise direction on the summer

Pompeii Haverfield describes the town in the following manner. Pompeii began in or before the sixth century
BC as an Oscan town. Then it was ruled by Etruscans. Later, about 420 BC, it was occupied by Samnites. In 80
BC, it was deduced by Romans as a 'colonia', peopled by soldiers discharged from the armies of Sulla. In AD 79
it reached its end in the eruption of Vesuvius. "As we know it at present, Pompeii is an irregular oval area of
about 160 acres, planted on a small natural hill and girt with a stone wall nearly two miles in circumference ...
On the west there was originally access to the sea ... Near this end of the town is the Forum, with the principal
temples and public buildings round it. At the east end of the town, nearly 1200 yds. from the western
extremity, is the amphitheater ... Two main streets, now called the Strada di Nola and the Strada
dell'Abbondanza, cross the town from SW to NE. The main streets from NW to SE are less distinct, but the
Strada Stabiana certainly ran from wall to wall. While there is some appearance of symmetry in the streets
generally, it does not go very far; there is hardly a right angle, or any close approach to a right angle, at any
street corner” [1]. Haverfield continues telling that, when we was writing, it was generally held that “the whole
town was laid out at once, perhaps during the Etruscan period, on one plan of streets crossing at right angles.
Two principal streets, those now styled the Strada di Mercurio and the Strada di Nola, are considered to be the

Electronic copy available at:

main streets of this earliest town-plan, and to give it its general direction. A third main street, the Strada
Stabiana, which cuts obliquely across from the Vesuvian to the Stabian Gate and mars the supposed symmetry
of this town-plan, is ascribed to the influence of a small natural depression along which it runs, while a small
area east of the Forum, which also breaks loose from the general scheme, is thought to have been laid out
abnormally in order to remedy the effect of this obliquity” [1]. In the Figure 1, we can see the map given in [1],
showing the main roads mentioned in the text. In the Figure 2 we are giving a snapshot from Wikimapia,
showing Pompeii today.

Figure 1: The map of Pompeii in [1].

Figure 2: The map of Pompeii in Wikimapia.


Electronic copy available at:

As we can see from the Figures 1 and 2, a small part of the town had a different layout. For this reason, as
Haverfield observed, the theory that the whole town was laid out at once is open to objections. “Pompeii may
have begun with a little Oscan town planted in what became its south-western corner, near the Water-Gate
and the Forum, within the area of Regions II and IV [of the Figure 1]. Here is a little network of streets, about
300 by 400 yds. across (25 acres), which harmonizes ill with the streets in the rest of the town, … which
includes the Forum and Basilica—probably the oldest public sites, though not the oldest surviving structures, in
Pompeii—and which is large enough to have formed the greater part or even the whole of a prehistoric city. …
This area has all the appearance of an 'Altstadt'. No doubt it has been much altered by later changes. In
particular, Forum and Basilica have grown far beyond their first proportions, and the buildings which surround
them have been added, altered, enlarged out of all resemblance to the original plan. … Round this primitive city
grew up the greater Pompeii. The growth must have been rather by two or three distinct accretions than a
gradual and continuous development” [1].
Haverfield is also noticing another fact. “The town-planning of Pompeii is in the main trapezoidal, not
rectangular. Neither its oblongs, nor its squares, nor its street-crossings exhibit true right angles, though many
of the rooms and peristyles in the private houses are regular enough. In this feature Pompeii resembles the
trapezoidal outlines of the Terramare” [1]. Pompeii has also features of the Roman military work, “both of
Republican and of Imperial date, which disregards the strict right angle and accepts squares and oblongs which
are, so to say, askew … Whatever the reason, the trapezoidal house-blocks of Pompeii exhibit a feature which
is not alien to the earlier town-planning of Italy, though it is strange to the cities of Greece” [1].

Herculaneum For what concerns this town, Haverfield notes that it had much the same early history as
Pompeii. “First an Oscan settlement, then Etruscan, then Samnite, it passed later under Roman rule. After the
Social Wars (89 BC.) it appears as a municipium” [1]. The town had a rectangular pattern of oblong house-
blocks. At the time when Haverfield wrote, “only a part of the town has been as yet unearthed”. And then, the
map given in [1] is the one reproduced in the Figure 3. As we can see from the Figure 4, today the town had
been excavated till the old seashore.

Figure 3: The map of Herculaneum in [1].

Figure 4: Herculaneum in Wikimapia.

For what concerns the planning, Haverfield tells that Nissen [5], had suggested that it was reconstructed after
an earthquake in AD 63 and was hardly completed before the eruption of 79. “The earthquake is well attested.
But it cannot possibly have wrecked the town so utterly as to cause wholesale rebuilding on new lines, and an
inscription points rather to the time of Augustus. One Marcus Nonius Balbus built 'a basilica, gates and a wall at
his own cost', and this builder Balbus was probably a contemporary of Augustus” [1]. However, as told by
Haverfield, others scholars preferred for the town-planning of Herculaneum a Greek influence, that they found
also in the city of Naples. “However, neither the town-planning of Naples … nor that of Pompeii, seems to be
necessarily Greek, and Herculaneum itself contains nothing which cannot be explained as Italian” [1].

Orientation of streets In [6], the author, Francesco Vitale, is proposing an archaeoastronomical research on
the possible astronomical criteria that ruled the orientation of streets and temples of Pompeii. In fact, Vitale
assumes the architects of Pompeii influenced by those of the Greek colonies of southern Italy. In [6], the
discussion is focused on the orientation of the Kardo, Strada Stabiana, towards the northern stars (Vega,
Capella and Deneb). In fact, we have to note that this street ended at the Vesuvian Gate, and then that is was
probably, approximatively, aligned towards the Mount Somma/Vesuvius. Ref.6 is also giving an information
concerning the decumani. In a figure of [6], it is noted that Via di Nola and Via dell’Abbondanza are “verso il
sole al solstizio d’estate”, that is “towards the sun on summer solstice”. In fact, as we can see in the Figures 5
and 6, using a software giving sunrise and sunset directions on satellite images, these two decumani are
aligned along the sunrise azimuth on the summer solstice (within a degree). Let us see if this is also the case of
Herculaneum. As shown in the Figure 7, it is so: the decumanus of Herculaneum is aligned along the sunrise on
summer solstice.
As we have discussed in [7], in several Italian towns it is still possible to see in their urban planning the streets
crossing each other perpendicularly, in particular when the towns had been founded (or re-founded) as
Roman colonies. The Romans mainly planned their towns with a precise regular scheme, based on two main
streets, the Decumanus Maximus, which was crossed by the perpendicular Kardo Maximus at the sacred core
of the town. At the ends of these two main streets, the Roman towns had usually their main gates. The space

of the town was further subdivided by other Decumani and Kardines in a regular pattern of perpendicular
streets. Such urban planning was strictly connected to the Centuriation, the land subdivision of territory [8].
The Centuriation used for the building of towns and military camps [9] was preceded by a ritual of foundation,
which was coming from the Etruscan Discipline [10-12]. For what concerns the orientation of the Decumanus,
according to [1] and some ancient Latin writers, the Decumanus was pointing "where the sun rises above the
horizon on the dawn of some day important in the history of the town". Therefore, some Roman towns have
the decumanus aligned along the sunrise on the day of their foundation. An example is Timgad, a colonial
town in Algeria, founded by the Emperor Trajan around AD 100 [1].
Since important days linked to the apparent motion of sun are the solstices, we have several examples of
towns and castra oriented along sunrise and sunset on solstices [7,9,13]. To the previously discussed examples
given in [7] and [9], we have to add Pompeii and Herculaneum, the decumani of which have such orientation.
This is not surprising, since, according to Haverfield, both towns had the same history comprising a period of
Etruscan domination. It was probably under the Etruscans that these main streets gained an orientation in
agreement to the ancient Etruscan Discipline.
Because some Latin authors described a ritual linked to the sun, this does not mean that, for the Italian towns,
other astronomical alignments are forbidden. For instance, Grumentum in Lucania [14], and Dertona and
Augusta Bagiennorum in Piedmont [15] have their decumani oriented along the moonrise on a major lunar
standstill. Therefore, using an expression from [16], we can tell that the ancient Italian populations followed a
augural discipline that prescribed an orientation of the towns “ad sidera”, that is according to the sky,
comprising sun, moon and stars. The case of Pompeii is quite important. In this town, we have the decumani
oriented to the sunrise, and the kardines, which are not perpendicular to the decumani, having a direction
which cannot be that of the setting of sun or moon. It remains the possibility of an orientation “ad sidera”,
that is, an orientation to the stars [6]. It means that in the ancient planning of a town, several orientations
could be observed in some cases, orientations linked to the different elements of the sky.

Figure 5: The decumani of Pompeii, Via della Fortuna and Via di Nola, seem being aligned along the sunrise on
the summer solstice, as we can see by means of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, a software giving the directions
of sunrise and sunset (yellow and orange lines) and the moonrise and moonset (blue lines) on satellite images.
The date is 21 June 2016. The difference between the direction of the streets and the sunrise azimuth is less
than half a degree.

Figure 6: A decumanus of Pompeii, Via dell’Abbondanza, with a good alignment along the sunrise on the
summer solstice, as we can see by means of the Photographer’s Ephemeris. The date is 21 June 2016. The
difference between the direction of the street and the sunrise azimuth is about a degree.

Figure 7: A decumanus of Herculaneum has a good alignment along the sunrise on the summer solstice, as we
can see by means of the Photographer’s Ephemeris. The date is 21 June 2016.

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