I’ve just finished The Fires of Vesuvius, Mary Beard’s 2008 book on the ruins of Pompeii, and thought I would pass along some of the things that revised my very vague sense of what the lost city was all about. The book makes a great companion to Pompeii and the Roman Villa, creating a context for the artworks and the lives lived among them.
Writing on walls and public surfaces was evidently popular in Pompeii. Some examples: “Epaphroditus and Thalia.” “Atimetus got me pregnant.” “I won at Nuceria playing alea, 855½ denarii—honestly, it’s true.” “Celadus, heartthrob of the girls.” (Beard concludes that this last example and other tributes to gladiators were written by the gladiators themselves.)
Pompeii was not engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius without warning; tremors would have affected the town hours and possibly days in advance. The town’s population is figured at between 6,400 and 30,000; of those, Beard estimates, at most 2,000 died in the disaster. The book opens with the terrifying episode of some who waited too long before trying to leave.
Riot at the Amphitheater
Twenty years before the end of Pompeii came what Beard calls its “second most famous appearance” in Roman history—a gladiatorial show that went bad when the rivalry between hometown Pompeii and visiting Nuceria progressed from name-calling to stone-throwing to open sword combat. There were so many casualties that the matter was taken to Nero, and Pompeiians were prohibited from holding similar events for ten years.
Pompeii was known for making and distributing a fish sauce called garum. The point of manufacture seems to have been outside of town. Pliny the Elder praised Pompeii’s garum (while disparaging a local wine as likely to produce a hangover till midday). Pottery labels show that you could get kosher garum as well as “best,” “premium best,” and “absolutely the best” garum.
Mary Beard excels at dividing what is known about Pompeii from what is guesswork or wishful thinking. Did the emperor Nero visit the city? The author finds the evidence flimsy. She cites a recently discovered wall painting of Apollo that’s been said to resemble Nero and thus demonstrate that Nero had used the location as a temporary residence. Or not, says Beard. But you can have a look for yourself. The painting is part of the Moregine Triclinium on display in Pompeii and the Roman Villa. (Oh, and I checked the wall label—there’s no mention of Nero.)