Pompeii by Mary Beard

By | August 24, 2019

Marry Beard’s Pompeii succeeds in several quite different and sometimes surprising ways. This is a guidebook, a history, a survey of social relations, a description of culture and religion, a catalogue and analysis of art, and an archaeological record. It is also an excellent read, highly informative, enlighteningly descriptive and scrupulously accurate.

Pompeii is a complicated site. At first glance, it may appear to be very simple. One day in 79 AD a coastal town in modern-day Campania, near Naples, which was then at the heart of a Greco-Roman culture, was buried under volcanic ash that spread from the eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. The town was completely destroyed, smothered under metres of ash. The disaster progressed quickly giving the town’s inhabitants little chance of escape, let alone a chance to gather their possessions. This naive description might thus suggest that all archaeologists need to do is uncover what the ash buried, and first century life in a Roman town will be revealed.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. The volcano did erupt and did bring about the end of Pompeii. But the town had previously in AD 62 suffered an earthquake, which had damaged many buildings, some of which was still not repaired in AD79. And Pompeii has been excavated many times. Some digs a couple of centuries ago extracted treasures for the titillation of monarchs, before volcanic ash, original construction materials and much of the historical and other material was randomly piled back to fill the holes. On the other hand, some areas have never been excavated and others still wait to be uncovered, but possibly not for the first time. Much work in previous centuries was undocumented, so who would know? Only the finds, and only some of those, were lodged in museums, and the provenance of many of those remains unclear.

Such a complicated history presents tremendous difficulties for modern archaeologists. There are many layers of possible interpretation, many potential complications. A great strength of Mary Beard’s book is that she always acknowledges these difficulties and, where simplistic, convenient or fashionable positions might create more attractive copy, consistently she is cautious with her assertions and considered in her conclusions. Refreshingly, where evidence is lacking, contradictory or merely open to interpretation, she usually leaves the matter open, thus allowing the reader to appreciate how hard it is to be definitive about the unknown.

Descriptions of everyday life in the first century AD are in many ways reassuringly familiar, with one significant exception. The modern reader may be rather shocked by how much daily life seems seemed to revolve around sex. But Mary beard does point out several times that this may be an overstatement. One is tempted to imagine how a modern town might be seen, if, once buried and uncovered, all that could be identified were advertising hoardings along a street where the only shop not to be obliterated sold sex toys. Our contemporary lack of knowledge about Pompeii’s inhabitants is illustrated by our inability to decide what might have been stored in the terracotta jars that were built into many of the town’s shop fronts. Mary Beard points out that theories they might have contained wine or oil are undermined by the simple fact that terracotta is porous, so it is more likely they contained dry goods. In one shop, a jar may have been a till, because it was found to contain a stash of small coins. But who knows whether the shop’s owner, frightened by a sudden eruption, merely tipped a box of small coins into the jar in a vain attempt to fill the box with more valuable possessions that might be carried?

The area of life that was clearly different in first century AD was that of religion and beliefs. There seemed to be a market in gods, as well as one in goods, and most buildings seem to have paintings or altars dedicated to a panoply of deities, drawn from several different traditions. Whether people did pick and choose, or whether people’s origins or ethnicity dictated allegiance, we simply do not know.

Pompeii clearly did have its own version of mass entertainment, both in theatre and amphitheatre. There was even a famous riot after a disputed contest, where supporters from a nearby town fought with locals. It made regional news. There was also a local language that was not Latin, but we have precious little of its literature.

A concept such a slavery, which in the modern mind is inextricably linked with the trade of recent colonial powers, is yet another aspect of ancient Roman life that is more complicated than contemporary assumptions allow. Mary Beard regularly refers to the complexity of these relationships throughout the text and long before then end we feel we really have learned something about a culture that quite suddenly feels much more distant than a mere couple of millennia.

Mary Beard’s Pompeii is a brilliant book that is worth reading in itself. But anyone who has visited or plans to visit the site will find it brings the experience or memory completely to life. It is a comprehensive description of the site and its culture, but makes clear that there are still stones to be turned. Unusually, however, readers who previously might have thought they were well-informed on the history, culture and archaeology of Pompei might just find, after reading this book, that they knew rather less than they thought.

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