Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Michael Grant - Cities of Vesuvius - Pompeii & Herculaneum

When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum stood little chance. Both were less than 10 miles from the volcano, and both were rapidly overcome by material from inside the earth. Thousands of people fled the volcanic mud and ash. Hundreds died and the archaeological record shows that many of them died because they returned for valuables, or tried to wait out the falling rocks in places of shelter.

Pompeii is one of the great tourist sites for those interested in history and though Michael Grant starts this wonderful book, with details of some of those who died in the eruption, the vast majority of the work is an illumination of the ancient town's streets, houses, shops, theatres and brothels. There's much of interest - and it's fun to compare and contrast our lives today, with those of the Roman's in AD 79. Surely if London was overcome by natural disaster many of use would die clutching our valued possessions. But we also find familar the love that the Roman's had for fine art, for good wine and for love and literature.

There is staggering evidence for how the Roman's lived. Having been to Pompeii, I've seen the cart tracks in the streets and stood in the fine rooms of the houses, you looked at the casts of those who died clutching their children to their breast. But I didn't know archaeologists had found the remains for bread in ancient ovens or tracked the artists responsible for different murals in Roman houses.

Grant's section on graffiti is amusing - not least because so much of it is reminisant of slogan's scrawled on walls today. "At least six inscriptions compare brunettes with blondes" he tells us and "a certain Septumius employes the same medium [graffiti] to launch obscene attacks on anyone who reads his scrawl." So much was written, that many walls had signs warning against the practice - to no avail. This certainly wasn't a practice limited to adults - the relative height of different graffiti show many children had a go, often as in the case of their adult scrawlers quoting famous works of literature.

Though first published in 1971, this appears to be the first paperback edition of this short book, dated 2001. I'd recommend anyone interested in ancient lives picks up a copy, particularly if you plan to visit the Naples region anytime soon.


Judith Weingarten said...

Thanks for reminding me of this excellent book and good to know that it's now available in paperback. Everyone has probably been to Pompeii at least once but not necessarily to Herculaneum. That site, I think, gives a wonderful idea of how the Roman 'middle class' lived, with streets of workshops and shops selling perfumes, food, or olive oil, with the family living above (rather like Margaret Thatcher's family). More evocative, in some ways, of a real Roman city ... and far less crowded than Pompeii.

Resolute Reader said...

I haven't had the chance to visit Herculaneum, though I get the impression that there is a lot less excavated - it was covered by volcanic mud, rather than the ash and stone that buried Pompeii, so I can't comment on your opinion. I have to say though, that I though Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port near Rome, in some ways gives a better view of day to day ancient life. And it too, is similarly deserted of tourists.

Judith Weingarten said...

Herculaneum is more exciting even than Ostia, in my opinion, because (1)it's still on the sea whereas the excavations at Ostia are now inland; (2) in addition to the 'middle class' areas, there are also lovely villas: for one of the most famous, see