The only reason I got Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence is that I know Ray Laurence is one of those lecturers who can make make even the most tedious subjects interesting. Otherwise I tend not to go for Pompeii books or television because a lot of it is what Dana Stevens has called disaster porn. The fate of the city does overshadow this book, but the subtitle tells you what is so great about the book. It’s not one long dirge of “Oh my! They’re all GOING TO DIE!!!” The volcano plays a strong part in the book, but it shows how the preservation of the site enables Pompeii scholars to be able to piece together everyday life in the city, even to the extent of being able to follow prostitutes around the city. Butterworth and Laurence have to an extent done this by writing a book that combines reconstruction with historical analysis.
This leads to a narrative problem which wouldn’t have occurred to me. The reader knows it’s going to end very badly. This will be in their mind as they read the book, but how can you acknowledge that without having people in the book say that the volcano looks dangerous? It’s a particular problem because one of the shocks of Pompeii is that the Romans thought Vesuvius was an extinct volcano. Fortunately the authors have a very convincing villain in the form of Nero who was Emperor for a lot of the period prior to the eruption.