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Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard


Book Review by Ursus

In 79 CE, Vulcan pounded his forge beneath Vesuvius a little too harshly, and fiery destruction was rained down on several communities in its wake. Bad for the people living there, but good for us: Towns like Pompeii have yielded innumerable archaeological treasures about life in Roman towns in the first century. In Fires of Vesuvius, Mary Beard lends the latest voice of classical inquiry into this subject, furnishing a cautionary and skeptical account of the material remains of Pompeii and what we can conclude from them.

Mary Beard is the chair of classics at Cambridge University. She has published numerous books on the classical world, as well as many widely read articles, and maintains a lively blog. Ms. Beard should need no further introduction, as she is one of the most recognizable of modern classical scholars.

The author states we simultaneously know much and very little about Pompeii. By that she means there is a considerable amount of material evidence, but a lack of certitude as to its proper interpretation. Much has been written about Pompeii by various authors boldly asserting their pet theories. Beard seems to delight in annihilating their overly presumptuous conclusions. "When it comes to reconstructing the everyday life of an ancient, it matters a very great deal exactly where your evidence is found," she asserts.

Case in point: if you see some graffiti extolling the sexual virility of gladiators, you might conclude it came from females with first hand satisfactory encounters. However, if said graffiti is located inside the gladiator barracks itself, one then wonders if it is nothing more than typical male locker room posturing. Another example: Widespread graffiti throughout the city may be in indication of levels of literacy among the broader population. But if much of the graffiti occurs on well-to-do homes, and is found at a level of height concurrent with an adolescent, one can just as well conclude much graffiti was the result of upper class youths who had become bored with their studies. This kind of insight into location and context occurs continuously throughout the works and is food for thought.

After an introduction recounting the events surrounding the volcanic explosion of Vesuvius, the work is divided into nine chapters which explore different areas of Pompeian life. While these chapters occasionally reference each other, for the most part they can be read out of order depending on your topical proclivities.

Chapter one recounts Pompeii's colorful history. Archaeological traces point to a past stretching as far back as the sixth century BCE, when Oscans, Greeks and Etruscans competed for power in the region of Campagnia. From there it fell under Samnite influence, before finally coming into the Roman orbit in the early third century BCE. It participated in the Social War in 91 BCE, and afterwards officially became a Roman colony under Sulla, who dedicated it to his patron god Venus. After the eruption, it passed into history. It became a tourist attraction to European dignitaries in the 18th century. Allied bombs damaged parts of the city in 1943, and surprisingly some of what modern tourists see has been reconstructed from wartime rubble.

Pompeii, despite some assertions that it was a backwater, seems to have fully participated in the economic and political life of the empire. There are many inscriptions in Greek, and at least one in Hebrew (along with remains of kosher fish sauce). A figurine of a Hindu goddess has also been discovered. However, Beard cautions us that Pompeii is not a snapshot of a Roman town frozen in time from the eruption. For one thing, the town had been damaged by an earthquake several years before the eruption, and it may have never fully recovered from the incident. For another thing, in the days leading up to eruption there would have been tremors and other portends, and some of the populace probably had already evacuated by the time the pumice hit. In the days after the eruption, it's clear that looters and homeowners returned to the city to dig out their property and remove what valuables they could.

The next four chapters discuss the lay of the town and its streets, housing and family life, painting and decoration, and professions. After that, successive chapters explore local politics, food, sexuality, bathing, entertainment, and religion. What emerges is a lively attempt to recreate the daily life of this damaged town without promoting speculation as fact. Given the detail and the analytical thought behind it, this book is not a fast read. It is first and foremost a scholarly work using archaeological methodology. However, Beard writes with a prose that is vivacious without being condescending. The interested general reader should have no problem understanding this fascinating study, provided they are willing to digest the copious detail. To further aid the reader there is a map of the city, various illustrations and color photographs, and a bibliography for further study.

In short, this is a recommended work for getting the record straight on Pompeii. In contrast to smarmy tour guides and too-confident scholars, Beard lets us know when we can't draw unfounded conclusions about life in Pompeii before Vesuvius - which, unfortunately, is all too often.

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Book Review of Fires of Vesuvius - Related Topic: Vesuvius and the Destruction of Pompeii


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