Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence

Pompeii the living cityThe 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.

The book starts in AD 54 with the death of a lead­ing Roman in the city, and the same year that Nero became emperor. The death thrusts his heir into the polit­ical spot­light and so is a suit­able entry point. The chapter is series of dram­at­ised pieces sur­round­ing the funeral and the respons­ib­il­it­ies that go with it con­nec­ted by longer and more detailed sec­tions of what sort of evid­ence exists to base the fic­tion upon. Chapter 1 is accompi­anied by Chapter I which is a brief dis­cus­sion of the period 300BC to AD54 which briefly explains why Pompeii is the way it is at this time. This is fol­lowed by Chapters 2 and II which look at how Pompeii is integ­rated within the wider eco­nomic frame­work of the empire through the eyes of a sailor over­win­ter­ing in Pompeii. It shows how integ­ra­tion wasn’t just about where money came from and went to, but also about the spread of ideas. For instance in this chapter the cult of Isis is impor­ted to Pompeii. The chapters go on being broadly them­atic, but by pulling evid­ence from a vari­ety of means and present­ing the city from many dif­fer­ent view­points no chapter is clearly about a single issue.

The book is graphic in places, though not pruri­ent. The chapter Yours for Two Coins draws on the expli­cit graf­fiti which sur­vived on the walls of the city to decribe the Roman atti­tudes to sex. Contraception and abor­tion are dis­cussed show­ing the ancient world was no idyll of ignor­ance. Further the graf­fiti sug­gests that women weren’t always the vic­tims of Roman sexual cul­ture. Butterworth and Laurence talk about graf­fiti that sug­gests men sold their ser­vices to women. This could be ignored as insults to the mas­culinty of some indi­vidu­als were it not for some graf­fiti writ­ten in tongue-twisting Latin that gives instruc­tions on what a woman wants. A man simply insult­ing an enemy prob­ably wouldn’t have that detail of ana­tom­ical knowledge.

Other chapters explore the lives of slaves both in the city and on the sur­round­ing estates. This is another joy in the book. History as the great deeds of great men is com­par­at­ively easy to write. This book shows how Pompeii allows a his­tory of those who would oth­er­wise be silent. This is also a book that includes chil­dren, though not in huge detail. Nonetheless it helps remind the reader that Romans weren’t born 1.6 metres tall and wear­ing a toga. The Romans in this book also eat, get sick and there’s a sec­tion which talks a lot about hygiene and the lack of it.

Against this back­ground are vign­ettes of life under the rule of the increas­ingly tyr­an­nical Nero which are echoed in Nature by the earth­quake of AD 62 from which the city never fully recobers. This is par­tic­u­larly evid­ent in the later chapters, one of which talks about a trip to Pompeii made by Nero and then the chaos caused by his death and the civil war that fol­lowed in the Year of the Four Emperors. At this time the city is threatened with the polit­ics of revenge. Chapters 12 and XII in con­trast almost end the story on a pos­it­ive note, by show­ing how Vespasian took meas­ures to remove the cor­rup­tion and fin­an­cial suid­cide in Nero’s eco­nomic man­age­ment and attempt to restore order to the Empire. In the book this is shown by the actions of Suedius Clemens, who is known from inscrip­tions around the city. The out­look for the city is, after this visit, positive.

Inevitably the events of 24 August AD 79 can­not be over­looked and these are covered by the final chapter. That it only takes up one chapter is a relief. The descrip­tion also includes the warn­ings prior to the event. They authors also show that the descrip­tions given in the his­tor­ical records and the archae­olo­gical evid­ence of the fallen bod­ies and geo­lo­gical strata have all given use­ful inform­a­tion on how vol­canic erup­tions can occur. By show­ing through­out the pre­vi­ous chapters the vibrant life of the city the end­ing becomes more poignant. The city was briefly revis­ited by loot­ers after the erup­tion. There are also a few tombs and the descrip­tion of these in the book is touch­ing:

They appeared within a few years of the erup­tion and the remains bur­ied in them seem likely to have been those of suviv­ors who, when they died in the nat­ural course of things, wished to be reunited with the fam­ily and friends whom they had lost to Vesuvius. The decision to be bur­ied within such a waste­land would have entailed sac­ri­fices… [b]ut at least the dying would have known that deep below their graves lay fond memor­ies: a tomb where the fam­ily had always had cel­eb­rated their ancestor feasts, or a glade of fruit trees that had once swayed in the seem­ingly end­less sum­mer sun.

…and so the city and its inhab­it­ants began to pass out of memory. Even now Pompeii books can be about the vol­cano that over­looked the site. Instead this book cap­tures the life that made the burial of the city a tragedy rather than merely geology.

Other Reviews:
Friends of Classics
The Times
History Today
The Observer

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When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.