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Marry Beard’s Pompeii

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

Pompeii is a complicated place. At first glance, it may seem very simple. One day in 79 AD, a coastal city in present-day Campania near Naples, which was then at the heart of a Greco-Roman culture, was buried under volcanic ash that was spread by the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The city was completely destroyed, suffocated by meters of ash. The disaster progressed rapidly, giving the city’s inhabitants little chance of escape, let alone a chance to gather their possessions. This naive description might suggest that all archaeologists need to do is discover what buried the ash, and 1st century life in a Roman city will be revealed.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. The volcano erupted and brought about the end of Pompeii. But the city had previously suffered an earthquake in 62 AD, which had damaged many buildings, some of which were not yet repaired in 79 AD AND Pompeii has been excavated many times. Some excavations a couple of centuries ago extracted treasures to the excitement of the monarchs, before volcanic ash, original building materials, and much of the historical and other material were randomly piled up to fill the holes. On the other hand, some areas have never been excavated and others are still waiting to be discovered, but possibly not for the first time. Much of the work of the previous centuries was undocumented, so who would know? Only the finds, and only some of them, were housed in museums, and the provenance of many of them remains unclear.

Such a complicated history presents tremendous difficulties for modern archaeologists. There are many layers of interpretation possible, 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 can create a more attractive copy, she is always cautious with her claims and considerate in her conclusions. Refreshingly, when evidence is lacking, contradictory, or simply open to interpretation, it generally leaves the matter open, allowing the reader to appreciate how difficult 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 important exception. The modern reader may be surprised how much everyday life seems to revolve around sex. But Mary Beard points out several times that this may be an exaggeration. One is tempted to imagine what a modern city would look like if, once buried and discovered, all that could be identified were billboards along a street where the only store that was not destroyed sold sex toys. Our current lack of knowledge about the inhabitants of Pompeii is illustrated by our inability to decide what might have been stored in the terracotta jars that were built on many of the city’s storefronts. Mary Beard notes that theories that it could have contained wine or oil are undermined by the simple fact that terra cotta is porous, making it more likely to contain dry products. In a store, a jar may have been a cash register, because it was found to contain a stash of small coins. But who knows if the store owner, frightened by a sudden eruption, simply dumped a box of small coins into the jar in a vain attempt to fill the box with more valuable possessions that could be taken away?

The realm of life that was clearly different in the 1st century AD was that of religion and belief. There seemed to be a market for gods, as well as one for goods, and most of the buildings appear to have paintings or altars dedicated to a panoply of deities, drawn from several different traditions. Whether people chose and chose, or whether people’s origins or ethnicity dictated loyalty, we just don’t know.

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

A concept like slavery, which in the modern mind is inextricably linked to the trade of the 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 it ends we feel like we’ve really learned something about a culture that suddenly feels far more distant than a couple of millennia.

Mary Beard’s Pompeii is a brilliant book worth reading in itself. But anyone who has visited or plans to visit the site will find that it brings the experience or memory to life. It is a complete description of the site and its culture, but makes it clear that there are still stones to be converted. However, in an unusual way, readers who previously might have thought they were well-informed about Pompeii’s history, culture, and archeology might discover, after reading this book, that they knew far less than they thought.

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