Pompeii Mary Beard

Profile, pp.25, 315

Pompeii, by Mary Beard

In the early morning of 25 August AD 79 Mount Vesuvius blew its top. First came a rain of pumice stones; the roofs of Pompeii collapsed under their weight. Worse was to come: a burning lava, flowing at great speed against which no living being could survive. Pompeii was a city in flight, all normal occupations hastily abandoned. The majority, especially the rich, escaped to the countryside. Those who left it too late were incinerated, unable to make their way through streets filled with pumice. The city in flight became a city of the dead buried under thick layers of volcanic dust. It was not rediscovered and excavated until the late 18th century.

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Archaeologists have long given us the materials to reconstruct Roman society in digs from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates.The evidence is, so to speak, dispersed. Pompeii is exceptional in that all is concentrated in the remains of a single city. There are the ruins of the palatial houses of local grandees with their fountains, statues and gardens, their kitchens and lavatories. There are the clay vessels in which mice were fattened to be served up as a delicacy in the dining room. The narrow streets were lined with shops, bars and brothels. Most important are the graffiti and wall paintings that survive. The graffiti run from ‘I screwed so and so’ to ‘Good wine sold here’. A wall painting in the house of a very rich woman, now dilapidated, survives in engravings made when it was still intact. It shows a beggar using his dog to soften the hearts of passers-by. There are women sampling cloth and trying on shoes. A schoolboy, held down by two assistants, is thrashed by his teacher. Mary Beard combines the surviving written evidence (including the ten volumes of letters of the younger Pliny, who observed the Vesuvius eruption on the spot) with the material provided by the archaeologists. She makes the dead of Pompeii spring to life.

In the process she demolishes myths: the remains of an aristocratic lady, caught in the gladiators’ quarters, does not mean that Roman aristocrats, like our modern celebrities, fancied muscular sportsmen. Pompeii was a hierarchical, status-ridden society where, Beard writes, money counted. Young Pliny inherited an estate which, in modern terms, would have made him a multimillionaire. On my first visit to Pompeii election posters plastered on walls led me to think that the votes of free male citizens in free elctions to the city magistrates’ council counted. But only rich men could stand for office and bear the costs of financing public buildings and entertainments which office demanded. Patronage was all, corruption the oil that made the political machine work. The rich expected their clients to vote for them, just as the English grandees in the 18th century expected their tenants to turn out for them at the polls, and nabobs, who had made a fortune in India, bought up rotten boroughs. In Pompeii, one of the finest historical novels of my generation, Robert Harris draws a portrait of a former slave who has made a fortune as a building contractor. He bullies and despises the old aristocracy but forces his daughter to marry the son of an impoverished nobleman. Great territorial magnates may be arrogant in their family pride, but they do not need to be vulgar social climbers.

As the son of a primitive Methodist mother, and a puritanical father, in spite of slips and shortcomings I have remained a sexual prude. Pompeian wall paintings exhibiting the positions that bring most satisfaction in sexual intercourse disgust me, as does the obsession of painters with the male penis, sometimes depicted as of monstrous size. Mary Beard suggests that it is all a matter of power: penetration of a woman or boy signifies power, being penetrated brings infamy. For Christian converts the sexual malarkeys of a decadent society would ensure the victory of the true faith. For the early Christian father, Tertullian, to embrace a woman was to touch a body full of filth. To avoid the sins of the flesh men and women should take up a celibate life in monasteries, preferably located in deserts.

For Professor Beard Pompeii was a city full of gods. There were the numerous gods of the Greek pantheon plus deified emperors. Roman religions had their priests, Cicero was one, but they were civil dignitaries rather than Christian clergy. They had no single sacred text to guide them. ‘The crucial fact’, writes Beard, ‘was that the community’s adherence to religion was demonstrated through acts rather than words … the act of animal sacrifices was the most important act of all.’ If neglected, the gods would take a terrible revenge, as with the great Pompeian earthquake of AD 67. One of the more attractive features of paganism was that, since gods shared human vices and virtues, they were almost personal friends. But the pagan view of the afterlife in Hades is grim indeed. There is evidence in Pompeii that its citizens found deeper satisfactions in the worship of Egyptian religions. There do not seem to have been Christians in Pompeii but, as Gibbon tells us, they held the trump card: a clear view of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. For them the saved will rejoice for ever in Abraham’s bosom and the sinners will struggle to survive eternity in the burning lakes of Hell.

The elite tourists of the 18th-century Grand Tour found in Pompeii an aristocratic society and culture which they could understand. At school and university they had been nurtured on a diet of the Greek and Roman classics. Then with the railways came mass tourism. At present over two million tourists visit Pompeii each year. They will have little Latin and Greek, since these are tough disciplines, while soft options like sociology are considered as more relevant to our age. Mary Beard’s scholarship supplies the ignorant with a lively description of Pompeii as a city frozen in time.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated