Mary Beard’s Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town / by Anthony Gibbins

As we near the end of our time in the ancient city, I should like (velim) to recommend to you Mary Beard’s Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. It is a fascinating account of what we know about Pompeii, and how we know it. Below are the first  page and a half of the introduction. They invoke the archaeological record to sing of what it would have been to die in Pompeii. The heart of the book, meanwhile, explores what it would have been to live there.

Life Interrupted

In the early hours of 25 August 79 CE, the rain of pumice falling on Pompeii was easing off. It seemed a good moment to leave the city and make a bid for safety. A straggling group of more than twenty fugitives, who had been taking shelter within the walls while the dreadful downpour had been at its worst, took a chance on one of the eastern gates of the city, hoping to find a way out of the volcanic bombardment.

A few others had tried this route some hours before. One couple had fled, carrying just a small key (they presumably hoped one day to return to whatever it locked – house, apartment, chest or strong box) and a single bronze lamp. This can hardly have made much impact against the darkness of the night and the clouds of debris. But it was an expensive and fashionable object, moulded in the shape of a black African head – a hint of the (to us) disconcerting forms of ingenuity we shall often come across in Pompeii. The pair didn’t make it. Overwhelmed by the pumice they were found in 1907 where they had fallen, next to one of the grand tombs which lined this road, like others, out of the city. They collapsed, in fact, next to the lavish memorial to a woman who had died perhaps fifty years before, Aesquillia Polla, the wife of Numerius Herennius Celsus. Just twenty-two years old (as we can still read on the stone), she must have been less than half the age of her husband, a member of one Pompeii’s most prominent families, who had served as an officer in the Roman army and had twice been elected to the highest office in the city’s local government.

The layers of pumice had built up to several feet by the time the other group decided to risk escape in the same direction. Walking was slow and difficult. Most of the fugitives were young men, many carrying nothing with them, either because they had nothing to bring or they could no longer get to their valuables. One man had taken the precaution of arming himself with a dagger, in an elegant sheath (he had another sheath with him too, empty, because he had perhaps lost or lent the weapon it had held). The few women in the group had rather more. One carried a little silver statuette of the goddess Fortuna, ‘Good Fortune’, sitting on a throne, plus a handful of gold and silver rings – one with a tiny silver phallus attached by a chain, as a lucky charm perhaps (and an object we shall often meet in the course of this book). Others had their own little store of precious trinkets: a silver medicine box, a tiny base to hold a (missing) statuette and a couple of keys all stuffed into a cloth bag; a wooden jewellery case, with a necklace, ear-rings, silver spoon – and more keys. They had also brought what cash they could. For some just a loose bit of change; for others, whatever they had stashed away at home, or the takings of their shop. But it was not much. All in all, between the whole group there was barely 500 sesterces – which is in Pompeian terms about what it costs to buy a single mule.

Some of this group got a little further than the earlier couple. Fifteen or so had reached the next grand memorial, twenty metres further down the road, the tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus, when what we know as the ‘pyroclastic surge’ from Vesuvius wiped them out – a deadly, burning combination of gases, volcanic debris and molten rock travelling at huge speed, against which nothing could survive. Their bodies have been found, some mixed up with, even apparently still clutching, branches of wood. Maybe the more agile amongst them had taken to the trees which surrounded the tombs in a hopeless attempt to save themselves; more likely the surge which killed the fugitives also brought the trees crashing down on top of them.

She in turn greeted me in a friendly manner. I asked her many things about Pompeii and she asked me about my journey. (I have read all of the books written by her).

The Lego model of Pompeii is housed in the Nicholson Museum of The University of Sydney, Australia. Entry to the museum is entirely free, and you may visit Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 4:30. The Nicholson is Australia’s oldest University museum and contains the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The Pompeii model was commissioned by the Nicholson and constructed by LEGO Professional Builder Ryan McNaught. It is the third such model the museum has exhibited, following the Colosseum and Acropolis.  The Colosseum was returned to McNaught and recently exhibited around Australia. The Acropolis was denoted by the Nicholson to the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The Pompeii model is estimated to include 190 000 bricks and took 420 hours to complete.