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The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard

Non-Fiction Reviews

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard

Pompeii dice players

Dice players in a faded fresco from a tavern back room at Pompeii

The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard
The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
by Mary Beard
Belknap Press, 384 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

Unlocking the Mysteries of Ancient Pompeii

Discounting the ravages of over 250 years of excavation and exploitation by collectors and trampling tourists, the city of Pompeii, famously frozen in time in the year 79 AD, continues to offer the most complete material presentation of classical antiquity. This unique completeness, showing rather than telling of life in ancient Rome at a peak period of empire, makes a visit to Pompeii extraordinarily rewarding for even the most casual visitor.

But at the same time the complexity of studying and analyzing what was an entire city, surrounded by outlying farms and villages and resorts, is extraordinarily difficult. As Cambridge classicist Mary Beard points out in the Introduction to her brilliant The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, “The bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed.” It is Beard’s achievement to have maintained the highest possible level of scholarly inquiring while synthesizing what is known today about Pompeii into a single, accessible and delightfully readable volume. To such a huge task, she brings impeccable credentials: she holds the Chair of Classics at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and has published books on, among other things, the Parthenon and is co-author of one on the Roman Colosseum. The British School at Rome has an active program at Pompeii, from which she took benefit; and she was also a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles.

The murkiness begins with the number of inhabitants: 15,000, perhaps, but then tens of thousands more lived in the neighborhood, but no one knows for sure. Nor is the distance separating the town from the seafront known with certainty, and archaeologists are still trying to fix the shoreline with its bays; two lagoons seem to have stood between sea and Pompeii, but no one knows for sure.

Examples of past misreadings by scholars long dead also abound. A wall painting in the macellum, the market hall off the main Roman forum in Pompeii, depicts a woman traditionally described as an artist holding a palette against a background of fantasy architecture. Today she is interpreted as holding a dish of offerings to the gods. Even the date of the eruption, conventionally given as August 79 AD, can be challenged for, as Beard points out, a coin datable to the following September was found in the rubble caused by the eruption. A large quantity of autumn fruits were also found, along with evidence that victims were wearing clothes presumably too heavy for a summer day in the Gulf of Naples.

Pompeii thus offers a total picture of life in ancient Rome, but it is often out of focus, given the complexity. For student and tourist and even many scholars, this means tough choices. What is to be studied in Pompeii, its daily life or its arts and architecture; its water systems or its business records; its agricultural economy or its methods of food preservation; its amphorae factories or its sex-for-hire; its life at the moment of the eruption or its pre-eruption eight centuries of life; the DNA of its skeletons or the trade in wheat and wine? Whatever the topic, there are dozens of experts, but, as one of the great Pompeiian scholars of papyri remarked to me, “Outside of my field, I’m an amateur.”

Experts too have problems. Serious and innovative studies at Pompeii are being conducted by Italians from numerous universities and by academics from some twenty foreign institutions. They tend to operate so independently that their first joint two-day conference to compare notes took place only last year. The new findings, which occasionally contradict the old givens, are published in various languages, with the result that merely updating the novelties is a major challenge.

Listing these difficulties is a preamble to saying that Beard has nevertheless produced the ideal companion volume to understanding Pompeii. She focuses on a number of central areas of life at ancient Pompeii: the life in the streets; houses and life in the home; painting and decorating of walls; labor and earning a living, from banking to slavery; how the city was governed and administered; “the pleasures of the body”; entertainments, from the theater to gladiatorial combat; and religion and death. One of her most welcome (to me) contributions is to unravel some of the more abstruse meanings of the countless sculpture panels and paintings which are among the greatest gifts Pompeii has given the world.

Her imaginative choice of illustrations includes one stone bas relief showing a metal worker’s shop, in which, as two dogs and a child look on, a man beats with an anvil the hot metal held by another man with tongs. And she introduces us to some of those who lived in Pompeii, including Nigella, porcaria publica, or “public pig keeper.” Then there is another woman, Faustilla the pawnbroker, who charged 3 percent monthly, and accepted as a guarantee for the loan a pair of earrings and two cloaks.

What is missing? Throughout Pompeii evidence of its crucially important trade with Egypt abound. Nilotic scenes decorate floors and walls, Egyptian motifs are inlaid into the black obsidian vases, the cult of Isis is celebrated in an important temple, but with no attempt to explain why Alexandria and Egypt were such important themes. The connection is all the more intriguing because Egypt and Pompeii both supplied Rome’s million citizens with the wheat that was their staple food; over 30 percent of the amphorae shards found at Ostia Antica, Rome’s port, bear marks from Pompeii, but 50 percent are from Egypt.

Nevertheless, in my personal library there are 130 books on Pompeii. Of all these, this is the one I would choose to read first.

Judith Harris was born in Lakewood, Ohio, and began selling articles to the "Cleveland Press" of Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen. A graduate of Northwestern University she is today a regular contributor to "ARTnews" of New York and to "Current World Archaeology" of London. She lives in Rome, Italy, with her partner David Willey.



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