Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, The Sunday Telegraph, November 18 2007

With books about Pompeii already pouring out on topics as diverse as the town’s trade, public spaces, and gardens, one has to ask – why another? The question answers itself: the whole point of The Complete Pompeii is to bring the general public up to pace with the best of the new work on every aspect of this astonishing place, overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

The result is a triumph, a must for everyone interested in the most famous site in the ancient world. Beautifully written and illustrated, packed with fascinating information, it takes the reader from the explosion and history of the excavations back to the birth of the town, its subsequent history and what the remains now tell us.

Berry describes the terrifying sequence of events that triggered the disaster: earthquake and ash fall, of course, but also something far more devastating - nuées ardentes, flows and surges of hot gas and ash, travelling at great speed over the ground and reaching temperatures of 400C/750F. These occurred when the up-thrust from the volcano could no longer sustain the millions of tons of material (ten billion in all) which it had ejected 10 miles up into the air. When that material collapsed, it cascaded overland in a matter of minutes. The results can be observed in the shattered skeletons of three hundred people waiting for rescue on what was once the beach at Herculaneum. If Vesuvius ever goes up again with similar force, the three million inhabitants of Naples will be a few minutes away. At least people can escape ash fall.

But Berry warns us that Pompeii is not, as Romans thought, a town wholly ‘frozen in time’. (The ancient historian Dio talked, absurdly, of Pompeii being buried ‘while its [presumably comatose] populace was seated in the theatre’.) In fact, thousands of people managed to escape with money and property; enormous damage was done to the town; the coast-line and course of the nearby river Sarno were altered dramatically (e.g. Pompeii is no longer on the coast); and treasure hunters were burrowing into the ruins well before official excavations ever began in the 18thC.

Nevertheless, the deep freeze is still pretty well stocked. Take Caecilius Iucundus, known to thousands of schoolchildren as the head of the household featured in the Cambridge Latin Course.

He was a financier, and an archive of his dealings was found on 154 wooden tablets stored in a box at the top of his house. He made his money by charging commission on deals that he carried out for clients at auction (selling slaves, mules, linen and so on), buying the right to collect taxes, and renting out various properties. Doubtless some of the workers named as labouring away in Pompeii lived in them – gem-cutters, grape-pickers (wine was huge business, most of the villas involved with it), onion-sellers, surveyors, priests, fishermen, chicken-keepers, bath attendants, soothsayers, and all.

Such detailed records, combined with frescoes, artefacts, roads, buildings, water-works, gardens and 11,000 inscriptions (‘I came here, had a shag, went home’; ‘Chios, may your piles burn as never before!’; ‘I hate poor people’; ‘Virgula to her bloke Tertius: you’re a dirty old man’), enable one to talk about people, history, private and public life, religion, society, art, culture and economic activity with a unique vividness, depth and breadth. To all of this, Berry does full, and magnificently illustrated, justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment