Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Fires of Vesuvius

This is how a history book should be written -- to inform, to encourage the reader to think, and to entertain. Anyone planning to visit Pompeii who wants to get beyond the standard guidebook clich├ęs should read The Fires of Vesuvius beforehand, taking it along on the trip as well. It will be equally riveting for anyone with a serious interest in the world's most famous historical ruins.

The coach tours instruct their captive audiences that Pompeii is an ancient Roman town "frozen in time," a step back into A.D. 79 when it was buried by ashes from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Obviously there is some truth in that, but as author Mary Beard shows in various ways, it is by no means entirely true.

For one thing, even motor coach lecturers point out that most of the murals and other artwork decorating the Pompeiian villas are no longer in the ruins, but on display in the Naples archaeological museum. And a damn good thing that is. Few would have survived had they been left in situ

Beard includes reproductions of several old drawings of ancient wall paintings and sculptures. The originals are now gone or severely faded. Archaeologists, historians, and art lovers mourn them.

When first excavated in the 18th century the buildings were in considerably worse shape than they are now, after much restoration. Damage from an earthquake in 62 had not been completely fixed when Vesuvius erupted, and the volcanic ash collapsed roofs, which in turn destroyed many interior furnishings. Frozen in time, but a time when a lot of the city had been trashed.

We don't know how much of the evidence uncovered was looted or lost after seeing the light for the first time after some 1,800 years. As if that weren't enough, the city was literally bombed by Allied aircraft in 1943! Why? Beard doesn't say. Of course many sites of historic importance were also blown up in the world wars, the most famous being the abbey Monte Cassino (founded by St. Benedict in 529)  in the campaign to take Rome. But at least Monte Cassino was a military target, believed occupied by the German army -- although there has been controversy about whether that was so at the time of the destruction. Were there German units touring the temples and brothels of Pompeii?

But such considerations make up only a small part of The Fires of Vesuvius. The author concentrates on what is still available to see now, with a historically informed enthusiasm. She seems to have read everything ever written about Pompeian history by ancient and modern authors, although she says her lists of sources are "inevitably selective"; the impressive bibliography includes works in several languages.

Beard wears her learning lightly. Although writing with enough detail to satisfy the curious non-specialist reader, she's no show-off. Her style avoids academic jargon, using ordinary but evocative language. Here's a sample:
One of the hardest things to recapture [for the modern visitor] is the combination of gaudy brightness and dingy gloom that characterised Pompeian houses of this type. The vast majority were originally painted in vivid colours, which have in many cases now faded to, literally, pale imitations of what they once were: deep reds to washed-out pinks, bright yellows to creamy pastel. 

And it was not just a matter of coloured walls. Though the original ceilings rarely survive, where they have been reconstructed (by piecing together the fallen plasterwork found on the floor) they also are sometimes ornately decorated and coloured in rich hues. ... Like the Pompeian street, many a Pompeian house would have been, in our terms, an assault on the visual senses.

The assault was perhaps mitigated by the general darkness. For while the sunlight would have streamed into the atrium through the open roof, and into the peristyle garden, many other rooms had little or no access to light -- except what they could borrow from those internal sources.
External windows, she says, were generally few and small. No wonder we have found so many once-hanging oil lamps.

The Fires of Vesuvius examines Pompeii, and a few nearby areas, from many angles -- streets, shops, residences, religious rites, fun and games, politics (even managing to make the last more interesting than you might think). The famous houses of ill repute (probably not scandalous at the time, although sited in their own "red light district" so to speak) and the gladiatorial games are given their due but not emphasized for the sake of sensationalism. 

Graffiti seem to have been scrawled all over town, including on the internal pillars of the Basilica in the Forum. Some were electioneering "posters," some sexual boasting, some silly jokes, pretty much like what might appear today on billboards or rest room walls.

Mary Beard is a professor (or whatever the proper term may be) at Newnham College, Cambridge. Newnham, incidentally, is where one of the distinguished early leaders of the Society for Psychical Research, Eleanor Sidgwick, taught.

Beard is a media celebrity in the U.K., where she has written and presented the BBC TV series Meet the Romans.


Mercurius Aulicus said...

Mary Beard also has a blog at if you are interested.

Rick Darby said...

Mercurius Aulicus,

Thanks for the heads-up on Mary Beard's blog. I also looked up your My-Ear-Trumpet site -- great stuff! Far-out design! I've bookmarked it.