Pompeii – Mary Beard

I first came across Professor Mary Beard through her blog, A Don’s Life. Then, I watched her TV series, Meet the Romans. I enjoyed the way she talked about the lives of ordinary people 2000 years ago. So, knowing very little about Pompeii, I borrowed her book about the city & prepared to be enlightened & entertained. And, I was!

The word Pompeii conjures up images of a decadent society with a brothel on every corner until the gods retaliated by destroying the town in the shape of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The plaster casts of the victims of the eruption & the objects & paintings revealed by over a century of archaeological exploration have coloured most people’s ideas of Pompeii. Mary Beard begins her book with an account of one group of people trying desperately to escape the disaster & failing. Most of the book, however, is more concerned with the living than the dead. The subtitle is, after all, The Life of a Roman Town.

The book explores the way ordinary people lived in Roman times. The street life, the way houses were decorated, how people earned a living & where they went to experience the pleasures of life – food, wine, sex & baths. Along the way, Beard demolishes or at least questions some of the more prevalent myths about Pompeii, particularly about the sexual life of the city. The myth that there were brothels everywhere depends on the standard of identification used by historians & archaeologists. Some believe that one erotic painting or example of sexual graffiti indicates a brothel. On this basis, there were a lot of brothels in Pompeii. Other historians have set the bar higher. A building must have a bed in a room easily accessible to the public, explicitly erotic paintings on the wall & a cluster of sexual graffiti on the walls. On this basis, there was just one brothel in Pompeii.

Mary Beard continually emphasizes the random nature of what has survived & that’s what I find fascinating about any book written about the ancient world. There’s a running joke on Time Team that an archaeologist will call any unusual object or building “ritual”. If they don’t know what it is or what it was used for, it must have a religious purpose. In Pompeii, the purpose of unidentifiable objects has often been seen as ritual or sexual. We all have a desire to stick a label on an object & have some certainty about its use. Archaeologists are no different. Beard examines the various theories about a place or an object & gives the reader her own opinion which is always more common sense than fantastical.

I found the chapter about religion & the gods fascinating as well. The Romans were happy to allow a multitude of gods into their pantheon. The Temple of Jupiter Meilichios is just one example of the temples rediscovered in Pompeii, structured in the usual way – a room to hold the statues of the god & an altar outside where sacrifices were performed. The clean emptiness of the temple gives no idea of how it would have looked originally. The statue of the god would have been surrounded by offerings. There might have been other works of art or the objects brought home by victorious armies. The animal sacrifices took place outside on the altar, performed by priests in the accepted manner. The identification of the Emperor with the gods meant that religion was very much part of Roman society & political life. Rome was happy to appropriate the gods of conquered people but not if they were seen as a threat to the Emperor’s power.

It’s hard to know how typical a Roman town Pompeii was & Mary Beard doesn’t try to make the experience of someone living there stand for life all over the Empire. Pompeii’s survival under the layers of pumice & mud has made it a fascinating source of material for scholars. The attraction of catching a city in the moment of death & destruction is undeniable & this book is an excellent way to explore the Roman world.

I’ve also been dipping into the second collection of posts from Mary Beard’s blog. The collection is called All In A Don’s Day. Mary Beard writes about Cambridge, academia, the Ancient world as portrayed in the media & anything else that takes her fancy in a direct, conversational style, much like the style of Pompeii. The posts are often accompanied by the wittiest or most pertinent responses from her readers – & a very erudite lot they are. Although these posts are a few years old, the subjects are timeless & were probably chosen because of this. Blogs must be one of the more ephemeral forms of writing but it’s interesting to see what a Cambridge don’s day is like albeit a don who’s now a bit of a media star, always asked for a quote when anything from the Classical world hits the headlines.

4 thoughts on “Pompeii – Mary Beard

  1. I was just visiting a historic house here in Boston this weekend — one built in the 1790s — that had wallpaper in the drawing room depicting scenes from Pompei. Pompei was very trendy, apparently! I don't know very much about it, but I think both of these books would appeal to me.


  2. I think the rediscovery of Pompeii was a bit like the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in the 20s. Fashion & design was very influenced by it & it sounds as though the same was true for Pompeii – at least in Boston! MB's book is a good introduction if you want to know more about it all.


  3. I wish this book had been out when we went to Pompeii a few years back. It was baking hot (one of the few hot days we had as we had gone to Amalfi at Easter and had a few cold and rainy days), there was no shade and we really should have either waited for a guided tour or got one of the audio guides because at that time there were no explainatory labels even in Italian, so we really had very little idea of what we were looking at most of the time!

    Mary Beard is very good and it is nice to see a female expert being called upon. Unfortunately there was a bit of an unseemly media kerfuffle recently when she was criticised for having long grey hair and basically for being a middle-aged woman! She reacted with dignity but I am guessing that the male TV reviewer who made the criticism will be avoiding any large groups of women for the near future as there was (unsurprisingly) real fury at his sexist attitude.


  4. I read about the nasty comments & thought it was just typical sexism as no one cares what David Starkey looks like or what colour his hair is. An expert is an expert. I was interested to read in one of MB's blog posts that she doesn't read a script when she films, she just has a few points she wants to make & off she goes. All those years of lecturing have come in handy for thinking & speaking on her feet. The book has a handy list of recommended places to visit as you could hardly see it all so that would be useful on a future trip.


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