BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
POMPEII: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard
, August 8, 2009
Secrets of the lost city of Pompeii
The Life of a Roman Town
by Mary Beard
(London: Profile Books)
Hardcover: 360 pages, Rec. price: AUD$65.00
Reviewed by Michael Daniel
Almost 2,000 years after its destruction, the Roman city of Pompeii continues to fascinate people. On August 24-25, AD 79, the city - near where modern-day Naples stands - was entombed, by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, under a deep layer of volcanic ash.
Rediscovered in the mid-18th century, Pompeii is still being gradually excavated. It has given us a unique insight into the lives of Roman people. However, the author Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, continually reminds readers that Pompeii also raises many questions about the lives of the city's inhabitants that often defy easy or straightforward answers.
Professor Beard, after providing a history of the city, surveys the lives of the inhabitants from the available archaeological evidence.
Despite its decidedly Roman name, Pompeii contained buildings dating back to the sixth century BC. Columns of a temple, built in the Etruscan style, were later incorporated into a house now known as the "House of the Etruscan Column". While traces of material have been found from as far back as the ninth century BC, it is difficult to determine whether this represents a substantial urban presence.
The original inhabitants were Oscan. Hundreds of graffiti items written in the Oscan language have been unearthed. It seems that this language was still used, at least by some of Pompeii's inhabitants, up to the city's destruction. By the early third century BC, Pompeii was allied to Rome; however, it was not until early in the first century BC that it acquired the name Pompeii, soon after its citizens were granted Roman citizenship, when it became a Roman colony to settle veteran soldiers.
In successive chapters, various aspects of life in Pompeii are examined. Thus, there are chapters on life in the streets - covering topics such as traffic conditions, roads, sanitation, housing, shops, local government and entertainment. What strikes the reader is the fascinating yet very different lives first-century Romans led compared with life in Western cities today.
A wealthy Roman house was literally full of people. The concept of family life was vastly different. The Latin word familia, for example, is better translated as "household" rather than "family." While the master and his family slept in proper beds, slaves and freedmen who resided in the house often had to make do with sleeping anywhere they could. Similarly, wealthy Romans dined by reclining on couches - there were usually three such couches in a Roman dining-room. By contrast, other members of the household ate wherever they could.
Beard also examines the more egregious side of Roman life. Some of the matters she discusses and illustrated material she provides are not for family viewing; but her book does at least put the Christian New Testament and other early church writings in their social context, and helps readers understand the pagan worldview and immorality to which writers such as the Apostle Paul were responding.
Interestingly, evidence of Christian activity has been unearthed in Pompeii, although Jewish remains are far more extensive, as one would expect.
Among the chief strengths of this work are Professor Beard's insightful analysis and her constant challenging of widespread assumptions that have been made about Roman life.
One enduring myth is that the Romans were essentially hygienic. It is true that a daily visit to the baths was a Roman custom, but the bathwater was not sterilised and would have been full of bacteria. Similarly, the streets of a city like Pompeii were full of rubbish and human waste, and only ever cleaned out by heavy downpours of rain.
Pompeii is a fascinating portrait of life in first-century Rome. It is best read progressively and would presume a certain amount of interest in the subject material. It is particularly suitable for those who have visited the A Day in Pompeii exhibition, currently displaying at the Melbourne Museum (until October 25). However, as indicated, readers are cautioned that some of the content - including some visual material - is unsuitable for younger readers.