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.
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.