Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town

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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town By Mary Beard, book reviewPompeii is name which is instantly evocative, of disaster, volcanic eruption, destruction, terror and death. In her book Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard looks at how the town was in its life, before it was devastated by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. First published in 2008, Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town has recently been reissued to coincide with Beard’s upcoming BBC programme of the same name.

Mary Beard is a well-known classicist, with a Chair of Classics at Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Newnham College, and she is classics editor of the TLS. She has published other works on the Roman world, and with Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town, she aims to “bust some of the myths of Pompeii, and show that how the people of the town lived is actually just as interesting as how they died.”

While of course her book covers the eruption, and the fleeing of the citizens, its focus is on the life of the town. The houses, work, infrastructure, justice, recreation and worship of Pompeii all come under the microscope, as Beard examines the evidence in Pompeii and from elsewhere in the Roman Empire to build a picture of the citizens of Pompeii.

I visited Pompeii in the 1990s, and like many other I was led to believe that it was a town “frozen in time”. This is the first of the myths that Beard wants to bust – there is plenty of evidence that people started to leave days before the eruption, during the preceding warning tremors from the volcano. But there are plenty of others which she argues against, some which are basically tall tales told by the tourist guides at the site, and some which come from archaeologists, who take a piece of evidence they have uncovered as incontrovertible proof of some part of life at Pompeii that they are determined to prove.

Beard’s writing is completely engaging, and very readable. It is easy to see ancient history as being somewhat dry: you visit a site where all that is left are ruins, and it is hard to imagine it as a bustling hive of activity. Yet within the pages of Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town, the Pompeians, dead and gone for almost 2000 years, start to come to life and walk again. The colours of their homes and the bustle of the streets seem so real you can picture them vividly, so close you feel as if you are there. So often I feel on the outside of historical writing, but not in this case. Beard uses anecdotes of Pompeii residents wherever available, little stories which give a hint of their humanity and their sense of humour.

“I cannot see this book being matched factually or for sheer readability and enjoyment.”

We regularly share in Beard’s frustration at the lack of historical evidence in Pompeii. It cannot be helped in cases where things simply did not survive the eruption, but there are many cases where evidence was destroyed by early evacuation methods (excavations began in 1748), by the elements after being uncovered, or by Allied bombing during World War II. The thought that we could have known so much more about this town and its people is a frustrating one, especially while reading this book, as it brings the town to life but always with question marks.

Beard’s style is almost chatty and relaxed, but always keeping the authoritative tone necessary for this type of work. She appears to enjoy gently mocking the daft theories conjured up by archaeologists and tourist guides to explain finds at the site, and she also appears to enjoy flagging up the humour of the citizens, which is still visible through large amounts of graffiti and paintings found in the town. This rather has the effect of including the reader in her views, both of the town and the daft theories, so that it feels like we are alongside Beard, sighing over yet another daft idea. This is a nice effect, whereby it allows the reader to feel connected to the author, an eminent classicist, and equal with her.

Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town covers every aspect of life in the town, using all available evidence in the process. The text is backed up by numerous photographs and images of items from the site, which are interspersed through the text in black and white, and also in two full colour sections. This is a great way of allowing you to see the image while reading about it, rather than have to flick through to the colour sections to find it. In addition, a handy guide to visiting the site is included, along with extensive suggestions for further reading – not a direct bibliography, but rather a guide to where to turn next if a particular aspect of Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town caught your interest.

Pompeii is a place which will no doubt always hold fascination for historians as well as the general public. Mary Beard has created a wonderful book in Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town, one which is accessible for all and which is truly an enjoyable read. I cannot see it being matched factually or for sheer readability and enjoyment. I for one am thoroughly looking forward to watching the accompanying BBC show.

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
Published by Profile Books, November 2010
Many thanks to Profile Books for providing a review copy of Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town.

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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town
by Mary Beard

2 Comments on "Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town"

  1. koshkha
    15/12/2010 at 09:41 Permalink

    I watched her on TV last night in the Pompeii programme – what an AMAZING woman. I wish my husband could have seen beyond her needing a ‘damned good haircut’ – but hearing a rather prim grey-haired lady discussing ‘shit’ and willies on the BBC was hillarious.

  2. eilidhcatriona
    15/12/2010 at 09:48 Permalink

    I really enjoyed it too, have been looking forward to it for ages – the book is much more detailed if you want to learn more though, the show was just scraping the surface. Not sure the swearing was entirely necessary, but I did have a giggle at her literal translations of some of the graffiti!!!

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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