The rich and famous — and some sex-starved sailors, had a great time until Vesuvius roared, writes Derek Cheng.

Horny sailors arriving at the city of Pompeii 2000 years ago, had two signals to lead them to the instant gratification of the red-light district: sculptured penises on the roads, serving as arrows, and the howls of the lupa — Latin for she-wolf, or antiquated slang for prostitute.

Sailors typically come from foreign countries, so the brothels solved any communication issues through frescoes on the walls, showing couples in various states of acrobatic copulation. The client needed only to point at his desired position.

Pompeii was a bustling metropolis of 20,000 people on Italy's southwest coast when it was buried under 5m of volcanic ash in AD79, following a violent outburst from Mt Vesuvius that lasted for days and, by its conclusion, had cut Vesuvius' height in half and blanketed the region in so much ash and lava that it created a new coastline, 2km further west.

The city lay buried until 1748, when some workers laying foundations in the land led to its rediscovery. Although a third of it remains buried, nowhere else in the world is there such a perfectly preserved Greco-Roman city (founded by the Greeks, conquered by the Romans), where you can literally walk through the stone streets and temples of a historic cityscape, lined with majestic columns and marble sculptures.


And this window back in time reveals a hedonistic lifestyle. In 1819, the King of Naples locked away many unearthed paintings in a secret cabinet, accessible only to those of "mature age and respected morals".

The walls of the male public baths were adorned with dolphins, cupids, and the Goddess Venus - symbols of sex and love. The baths were segregated by class and gender, so fun-time here was of a homosexual nature, and away from prying spousal eyes.

The baths reveal brilliant Roman engineering. The area under the floor panels of the steam room was hollow and connected to a furnace, allowing the steam to seep in from below. A gap between the double walls meant that the hot air would hit the dome ceiling and condense back down between the walls, to be recycled to the water supply. They then used cold marble to cool the water as it trickled from the steam room to the Frigidarium - the cool-down room.

"They were genius in those days, we invented nothing!" was one of tour guide Lello's constant refrains.

All the water in the city came in aqueducts from the surrounding mountains and moved through the city in lead pipes of varying sizes, creating different pressures. The roads angled down to allow the rain to clean the poo-littered streets; each household had the latrine and kitchen next to the street, with small holes at the base of the wall for easy flushing of detritus. Pedestrian-crossings were three inch-high stepping stones, reflecting an aversion to poo-covered sandals.

People led lives of leisure. They attended gladiatorial battles during the day and the theatre in the evenings. The centre of the theatre stage, marked by an angled rock, is another showcase of engineering genius; from here your voice bounces perfectly off the marble seating, gloriously amplified.

But they also led political and spiritual lives. The centre of the city was the marketplace, next to the temples of Jupiter, Apollo and Isis. Next door was the most important public arena, the forum, where politicians and senators pleaded their cases to the masses.

The wealthiest lived in luxury homes with tiled floors and atriums with an open roof and a tank to collect rain water. The entrances were lined with white marble stones that reflected the moonlight, acting as street lights, while leafy courtyards in the rear were framed in columns and decorated with marble statues.

It is easy to be envious of this life. Brothels and steam rooms to fulfil your lust for flesh, fights to the death to satisfy your lust for blood, and the theatre for your cultured sensibilities. A huge villa to come home to, with a few slaves to pick up after you.

But that all ended abruptly with an eruption that preserved not only the city streets, but also the throes of the dying. When the bodies of the buried eventually decomposed, they left holes in the earth that researchers filled with plaster to perpetuate their final resting pose. The man with his knees to his chest hand over his mouth, trying to protect himself from poisonous fumes. Another shielding his face from insufferable heat. The dog that couldn't break free of the chain and died in a contorted, anguished state.

These reveal the true horror of August 24, AD79, when a mushroom cloud of ash and lava rose 33km into the skies, casting an insidious shadow over the Bay of Naples.

Pliny the Younger, the author who recorded scenes in famous letters, described it as a "black and menacing cloud, split by twisted and quivering flashes of fiery breath ... like lightning flashes, but greater".

"You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men ... People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore."

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has return Economy Class fares from Auckland to Rome on sale from $1589 for departures between January 15-June 30. Sale ends December 14.

Further information: Tours of Pompeii run guided day-trips of Pompeii from Rome that include transport to and from your hotel in Rome. Ask for Lello, an entertaining and knowledgeable guide.