Of all the cities of antiquity,
Pompeii is quite possibly the best known. “It was lost, and is now found; it
was destroyed, and is now preserved.” Frozen in time, it provides a unique
window on Roman cultural and intellectual life, and holds a mirror up to so
many of our own attitudes, features, gestures and obsessions.
My fascination with the city and its catastrophic
destruction goes back to childhood: I recall in my Latin textbook Ecce Romani pictures of a dog mosaic and
a weird skeleton: ‘canis ferocissimus est.’ And frescos of Caecilius and his family:
‘Caecilius iterum clamavit.’ I was an
avid collector of postcards, guidebooks and magazines on the topic. I had read Pliny’s
harrowing account and Lord Lytton’s The
Last Days of Pompeii by the age of 13: ‘Quid
sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere.’ Supping with Glaucus and gambling with
Clodius are what all schoolchildren should be doing, instead of sexting their
friends and surfing the internet in a cyber-life of meaningless meandering.
I eventually got to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum
leading a GCSE Classics group there a few years ago, and was finally able to see
and touch that famous Cave canem mosaic,
walk through the exotic bathhouses, and buy my very own bronze statue of a dancing
faun. I also visited the Naples Museum to satisfy my curiosity of all those
naughty erotic pieces of statuary so carefully screened from innocent eyes
(though Year 10 weren’t remotely fazed by any of it).
With that authentic experience,
I was in two minds as to whether I should visit the British Museum’s exhibition
‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’, which has had a mixed reception.
Those who loved it invariably admired the gruesome preservation of life and agonising
death; those who loathed it seem to complain about the stifling heat in a
dreary, airless space full of sweaty bodies, children crying and exasperated mothers
trying to escape the claustrophobic blackness. Pretty much, in fact, what first-century
Pompeii would have been like.
When I finally managed to get tickets a few weeks
ago, yes, I found myself in a superheated sauna of pyroclastic gases, trampled
underfoot by tens of thousands of tourists. But the thermal shock and discomfort
were worth it to get a sense of just how suddenly the domestic harmony and
community frenzy of one balmy August day in AD 79 can be so suddenly engulfed
by an apocalyptic image of horror. You just don’t get that walking leisurely
around the satyred gardens of Campania.
Elegant villas, rooms adorned with exquisite
paintings, gardens with fountains, all reconstructed to bring alive a lost
world in sensuous detail. There were kitchen saucepans and cooking utensils;
pitchers, plates and goblets; a charred children’s cot and a carefully-crafted
storage chest with melted brass fixtures. It was all so much more immediate and
intense than visiting the real thing at the height of the Amalfi tourist season.
There were pictures and portraits, sculpted marble statues, and murals in vivid
scarlet and pastel shades of pastoral tranquility. There was even real food –
carbonised olives and nuts and petrified bread – all carefully prepared by
Sotericus for an imminent feast, but never finally eaten in the villa of
Diomedes or the house of Loreius Tiburtinus.
It is essentially an exhibition of artefacts, but
you get a vivid sense of the real people who bartered in the Forum; stood for
political office; scrawled their graffiti and vulgar inscriptions on the walls
of the local bar; and who grunted their moments of ecstasy in the brothels, intoxicated
(quite literally) on Bacchus-worship. The imperial cult had a special place in
the religious life of Pompeii. Its hierarchy of priests and priestesses
participated in the celebration of the divinity of the Emperor, and so held
prominent positions in Pompeian society. But, as was in the days of Noah, they
were all oblivious to the Great Day of Wrath that was about to consume them.
As Vesuvius belched out its sulphur and steam 20
miles into the atmosphere, some 20,000 people beneath were scorched to death or
reduced to ash. Over the ensuing hours, the hubbub, prosperity and opulence of
Pompeii and Herculaneum would be entombed beneath metres of volcanic residue
and molten basalt, waiting to be discovered almost two millennia later. You can
but stare in wonder at the twisted plaster cast of an entire family preserved
in a moment of terror – the ghosts of a husband shielding his face and a mother
grasping her children to defend them from the fires of Orcus.
This is the stuff of living history: not only does
it still inform our own architecture, art and interior design, it keeps the
likes of Mary Beard in a full-time job, and civilisation is all the better for
that. It’s just a pity that so many schools long ago dropped Latin for Home
Economics, exchanged Greek for Drama, and shunted out Classical Civilisation in
favour of Media Studies. Lytton’s The
Last Days of Pompeii has it all, and more. And the British Museum’s ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ would
enthral any who are fascinated with at the original Ground Zero.