Wednesday 13 November 2019

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard

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In this easy to read history Beard cuts through the myths surrounding Pompeii and looks at life in this ancient town. Discussion of the eruption is confined to the opening chapter, a moving introduction that dispells many commonly held misconceptions. Tour guides and popular imagination like to perpetuate the idea that it is a city frozen in time, unexpectedly interrupted by disaster. The truth is that there would have been earthquakes and other warning signs leading up to the eruption and many had already evacuated. This explains both the sparsity of items in the houses and also the amount of renovations that seem to have been taking place. Beard also lays bare the claim that what we see now is as it was discovered, in reality early excavations damaged remains and the site was bombed during World War Two. Renovations have taken place to create a less damaged appearance. Nonetheless, it is a unique and intriguing site, although one that throws up as many questions as it answers. Some objects and frescoes have sadly been lost to time but we can be grateful to artists of the past who created detailed images of what was there when it was originally discovered.

Beard discusses the split in opinion of historians – some are happy that an unexceptional town has survived, giving us a glimpse into the normal life of a Roman town that would otherwise have been forgotten whereas others lament that it wasn’t a more important place, believing we could have been privy to far more. She discusses the role of Pompeii, seemingly a town of little consequence yet evidence suggest its port was busy and that it facilitated foreign trade.

The importance of where historic evidence is found in its interpretation is also highlighted. For example, graffiti about gladiators has been used to suggest they were the heart throbs of the day, yet when you consider the graffiti was found in the barracks of gladiators it seems more of a brag than an indication of public perception. The discussions of how history is pieced together are an interesting addition and important for an excavation that elicits so much interest and to which so much has happened in the intervening millennia.

Beard’s style makes this an accessible history and one I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Pompeii. It adds context to much of what you’ll see there including an explanation for the roads that needed stepping stones to cross and that the phallic imagery present around the town doesn’t indicate a city over-run with brothels as many would have you believe. For a town best known for its demise this book helps to bring the life of the town back to the fore.

Pick up a copy here.

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