Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Beard_(classicist)) wrote the following at the time of the major exhibition about Pompeii at The British Museum (http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2013/pompeii_and_herculaneum.aspx, ran from 28 March – 29 September 2013 ) and the publication of her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.

‘Natural disasters create household names. If it wasn’t for the eruption of Vesuvius  in AD79, which buried them under volcanic debris, almost no one now would have heard of Pompeii or Herculaneum. They were a pair of ordinary small cities in south Italy, unknown – I would guess — even to most ancient Romans living in the capital.

Apart from being the site of a battle in the early 1st century BC, Pompeii seems only to have hit the headlines in the wider world once: with a nasty outbreak of ancient sports hooliganism. In AD59 a brawl in the amphitheatre, between the “home supporters” and gangs from the nearby city of Nuceria, led to many deaths and serious injuries. As a punishment and to prevent further trouble, the emperor Nero imposed a 10-year ban on gladiatorial displays in the Pompeian amphitheatre.

About 10 miles away from Pompeii, Herculaneum – a smaller city, not much more than a large village in our terms (population under 6,000) – had no such moment in the limelight.

But it is the sheer ordinariness of these two places that makes them so extraordinary for us – as we shall discover again when the biggest collection of  “Vesuvian” material ever, from a touching child’s cradle to lavish jewellery, comes to the British Museum later this month. It is not just the simple fact of the cities’ preservation — though the fun of hopping across an ancient street on the real ancient stepping stones gives most visitors a thrill, as does a peek into the very seedy brothel down one of the city’s back alleys (its wall covered with the graffiti of boastful clients).

A view of the Forum in Pompeii with Vesuvius behind

It is also the fact that in Pompeii and Herculaneum we come face to face, not with the rich, larger-than-life Romans who fill the history books, but with the average men, women and children, both slaves and free — the ones who are otherwise largely hidden from history.

Of course there were some well-heeled people in both cities. In Pompeii we find a very plush residence with what must have been a gorgeous sea view (it’s easy to forget, because the coastline has moved, that in Roman times Pompeii was on the seaside); it was owned by a man who had made a lot of money producing the rotten fish sauce (or garum) that was a staple of Roman cuisine. We know what his trade was because he decorated the hall of his mansion with a personalised mosaic that featured jars of the different varieties of the stuff that he made in his factory. (It is almost as if Mr Heinz were to decorate his living-room with paintings of baked-bean cans.)

And there is one vast house in the centre of Pompeii (now known as the House of the Faun after a statue found in it) that is almost reminiscent of a British stately home. Not only was it palatial in size (covering three quarters of an acre), but at the time of the eruption it was still decorated as it had been about 200 years earlier — almost as if it were being preserved as an antique.

By and large, though, the splendour of even the best properties in Pompeii and Herculaneum hardly compares to rich residences in the city of Rome itself, or for that matter to some of the country houses in the area around Vesuvius and along the coast — where, as a favourite holiday destination, the metropolitan Roman élite had their second, third or fourth homes. Just outside Herculaneum is one of the most spectacular of these, the so-called Villa of the Papyri. Still not completely excavated (it’s buried under 20 metres of rock-hard volcanic debris), it once contained a whole library of papyrus scrolls, hence the modern name; the bad luck is, given what it might have held, that most of those so far discovered contain the work of a not hugely distinguished Greek philosopher of the 1st century BC, Philodemus.

It was not just a bookish place, though; it was loaded with art, too. More than 80 pieces of sculpture have been found there (including the infamous marble group that shocked and titillated many early tourists: the god Pan in the act of making love to a goat). In this property, we must be right at the very top of the Roman social hierarchy; it is even possible that the place was owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, known to have been a friend, and a fan, of Philodemus.

An artist’s impression of a street in Herculaneum.

These occasional glimpses of luxury are enticing. But, for most of us, even more fascinating is the view that Pompeii and Herculaneum offer of the places where the ordinary city folk lived, worked, ate, drank, bathed, or simply hung out. So, for example, it is only in these cities that we can get any real sense, not just of the basic layout of Roman public baths (you can see that on sites in Roman Britain), but also what it must have felt like actually to be inside these buildings: to sweat, to rub down, to plunge into the pools, to grab some fast food. They were a strange combination of  “people’s palaces”, with running water and the kind of rich decoration that most could never have afforded at home, and labyrinthine suites of smelly, unhygienic, dark, steamy rooms.

In one set of baths in Pompeii a store of 500 pottery lamps was found, showing that they did try to do something about the gloom. It was less easy to do anything about the nasty bugs you might pick up. A Roman doctor once recommended that you didn’t visit the baths when you had an open wound — else you might die of gangrene.

Or take the little shops that lined the main streets of both Pompeii and Herculaneum. In a few, the traces of the shutters that secured the premises at night are still visible (with a narrow door cut into them that would   allow the proprietor to sneak in without fully opening up). You can also sometimes see the traces of a mezzanine floor where he would have lived and slept, literally “above the shop”. It would have made a perfectly adequate bedsit for a single person, and maybe some shop-owners were singletons. But, if we imagine (as is much more likely) a couple plus two or three children, the picture becomes one of intolerable overcrowding and lack of privacy. Or at least so it would seem to us; poor Romans must have got used to never being alone.

Some of these remains of everyday Roman life seem reassuringly familiar. The mosaic “Beware of the Dog” sign (CAVE CANEM, plus the picture of a ferocious-looking hound) still to be found in the entrance way to the House of the Tragic Poet would look at home on the gate of any modern dog-owning household. Indeed, thousands of replicas have been sold as tourist souvenirs — so that it really does still stand as a warning notice at the entrance to many a modern house.

But other features seem bafflingly alien. No one, for example, has ever quite worked out how to explain the presence of so many phalluses all over the city, carved into the road surface, hanging over ovens, on jewellery around the necks of children, or made into novelty lamps. Is it something to do with a lusty, uninhibited attitude to sex? A badge of patriarchal power? Or a magic symbol to avert the evil eye?

More prosaically, it still comes as a surprise that even rich houses did not have designated bedrooms in our sense of the word; people mostly slept on the couches they sat on during the day (and if you were wealthy, your slave might bed down on the floor at your feet).

For us, part of the fun of these two cities is trying to put the people back into the ruins — and the Romans themselves have helped us to do that.

If you want to work out what happened in an ancient bar, two series of paintings from bar walls in Pompeii show exactly that: the barmaid bringing drinks, some casual flirtation, blokes playing a dice game — and finally the predictable brawl. Even more revealing is a set of paintings from a large house in Pompeii, which show scenes from life in the Forum, or main square of the city.

Today Pompeii’s Forum is a rather barren and disappointing open space. In the paintings, we see it full of people about their business: a group of men   consulting some (presumably) official notices; a schoolmaster who has   installed his class under the colonnade (and is in the process of giving one child a very nasty beating); a family who seem to be choosing shoes from a   cobbler’s stall; and a posh lady apparently giving some spare change to a beggar with a dog. It actually looks like a bustling city centre.

A fresco at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii

Occasionally we can even get a glimpse into the lives and problems of these ordinary individuals — thanks to the survival of some extraordinary written documents (happily for us, the wooden backing of wax tablets often still reveals the scratchings of the letters, after the wax itself has melted).

From Pompeii, we have more or less the ancient equivalent of the filing   cabinet of a local banker and auctioneer, Lucius Caecilius Jucundus. It is clear from these that he had some dubious ethics: Jucundus used to lend money to those wanting to buy at his auctions, so he took both a commission on the sale and interest on the loan.

From Herculaneum, we even get a taste of the complicated family lives of some of the inhabitants, and the problems ordinary people could have in asserting their rights and status — particularly in the face of slavery. In a basket in the loft of one of the plusher houses, the House of the Black Saloon, its owner had stored his most valuable legal documents – just as we might keep   our passport and birth certificate in a special drawer. In this case most of the dossier consists in the key proofs (sworn before officials in Rome itself) that the owner and his wife, who had both been born slaves, were now Roman citizens. Another set of documents found in another house was less conclusive.

No one could apparently agree whether a certain Petronia Justa was slave or   free. There were no official records, and a tortuous law case had to rely on conflicting witness testimonies, all carefully preserved. The outcome is unknown; probably the case was still dragging on in AD79.

Pompeii and Herculaneum are without doubt the best places in the world to step back into the Roman world. But it isn’t quite as straightforward a step as it might sometimes seem. There are intriguing puzzles and odd surprises.

The first is about life in the cities at the moment the volcanic debris   started to pour down. One powerful myth is that the innocent burghers of   Pompeii and Herculaneum were going about their ordinary business, when they were suddenly overwhelmed by the volcano – their lives frozen at a single ordinary moment. That was the case for a few: we know that some bakers had put loaves in the oven that they would never take out; some painters had started work they would never finish; and we still have the remains of the poor souls who took shelter in their back rooms, under the stairs, or (at Herculaneum) in the vaults by the seashore.

But there had been warning of trouble afoot – in his eyewitness account of the   eruption Pliny the Younger talks of the earthquakes that had shaken the   region over the previous days – and many of the inhabitants must already have left, taking their most precious possessions with them. These were   cities caught not in mid-life, but in mid-evacuation. We need to consider this when we try to re-imagine their domestic world. We need to re-clutter   Pompeii and Herculaneum, bearing in mind not only all the stuff that was destroyed in the eruption, but also what had been loaded into carts and on to donkeys and taken to safety.

Then there is the question of quite how “Roman” these towns were. We always treat them as the prime evidence of Roman daily life — and that is absolutely right at the time of the eruption. But in AD79, Pompeii   and Herculaneum had been formally part of the Roman world only for about 150   years; they swapped independence for Roman citizenship in the 80s BC, after a bitter war.

A relief showing the Forum at Pompeii shaken by the earthquake of AD62/3

Their history goes back centuries earlier than that, and is a multicultural mixture of Greek, Etruscan and the local pre-Roman, Italian culture. Many   parts of the town that we now see had been built – and the House of the Faun had been decorated (including its famous “Alexander mosaic”) – long before we can properly call the town Roman. And there were still people around in   AD79 who spoke the old native Oscan language (which was gradually being overtaken by Latin). We know that they did so, because there is a graffito in the brothel written in Oscan (it’s probably the last evidence for Oscan that we have anywhere — a sad place for a language to die!).

Also puzzling are some of the contrasts between Pompeii and Herculaneum, which are far from the twin towns they are often assumed to be. Today they offer a very different visitor experience.

Much less of Herculaneum is exposed to view (we are not even certain where its Forum was); it is less well known and tends to be far less crowded than Pompeii. The relatively small size of its excavated area is due partly to   the fact that there is a modern town on top of it, partly to the fact that   it is covered with many metres of solid volcanic deposit. The ruins of   Pompeii, by contrast, are quite close to the surface — and the debris that   covered it is much looser and easier to dig. It is enormously hard work to hack through to the remains of Herculaneum — though, on the plus side, the   precise composition of the debris means that more material is preserved   there. It’s only in Herculaneum, for example, that we find wooden fixtures and furniture in any quantity.

But it’s not just a question of modern contrasts. The two cities, though close neighbours, were also always very different in character. Some of the differences are easily explicable. Unlike at Pompeii, there were almost none of those distinctive stepping stones across the streets in Herculaneum. That’s presumably because Herculaneum had a proper underground drainage system, which meant that its streets did not turn into torrents every time there was a downpour. Others are still baffling.

A bust thought to be of the banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus

One of the most distinctive features at Pompeii are the painted election slogans, covering the walls of the main streets, urging passers-by to vote for particular candidates in the ancient equivalent of the mayoral elections (“Make Gaius Julius Polybius aedile [magistrate]”, reads one, “he brings good bread”). These are not found at Herculaneum, even though the system of local government was the same. Did the people of Herculaneum have other ways of canvassing? Or were they less politically active? Is it a sign, as some have thought, that it was a rather sleepy place compared with the commercial, more down-market and larger Pompeii?

Whatever the puzzles that remain, there can be no doubt that the residents of  these little places would be utterly amazed to find themselves still on the map after 2,000 years. Their modern history has been sadly eventful, too — including a disgraceful and destructive Allied bombing campaign of Pompeii in the Second World War, apparently to smoke out the Germans from the ruins   (archaeologists excavating some parts of the city report digging up ancient munitions from the first century battle next to modern shrapnel from the 1940s).

But the future of Pompeii and Herculaneum is now in all our hands — and it will be problematic to secure. When another wall falls down, it is too easy to point the finger at chronic underfunding or neglect. And it is too easy to forget that these cities were built (not always very well) over two   millennia ago, that they have been pummelled by Vesuvius, withstood earthquakes, enemy action and the forces of nature. It is in some ways remarkable that they are still standing at all.

The best way forward is probably to do all we reasonably can to keep them in good shape, to enjoy them while we have them — and to leave those parts which are still unexcavated (a third of Pompeii and more of Herculaneum) safely under the earth. Future generations will be able to excavate more — and enjoy — in all kinds of new ways’.

I hope you can be taken up by the infectious enthusiasm of Beard in this book. The Romans were so much like us in many ways, and yet so different in their outlook on the world. This is captivating history.

416 pages in Profile Books paperback edition

ISBN 978-1861975966

Professor Mary Beard

Mary Beard

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