Friday, June 26, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. 360; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780674029767. $26.95.
Reviewed by Carol C. Mattusch, George Mason University

[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Mary Beard's wonderfully engaging book about Pompeii is the answer to what to read before one's first visit to the site or what to assign one's students to interest them in the breadth of fields that pertain to the study of antiquity. The "Introduction" is a fine survey of what we know today about ancient Pompeii, and it is guaranteed to draw the attention of general readers -- the imprint of a breast, burnt loaves of bread in ovens, paint-pots and buckets of plaster left behind on a scaffold, and a tethered guard dog that failed to escape. Skeletons reveal infectious diseases, spinal disorders, and tartar on everyone's teeth, a record of ubiquitous bad breath in ancient Pompeii. Beard explains terms and the names of gates, streets, and houses, as well as why numbers were eventually assigned to houses. She gives dates of excavation, linking these to Pompeii's entry into the world of tourism and popular culture, reminding the reader that the city has not always been what it is now.1

Beard presents questions, and notes conflicting viewpoints about the answers. For example:did Pompeii decline as a result of a social revolution that occurred after the earthquake of 62? Why would the town have been under repair for nearly 20 years? Did earthquakes continue during that time? Didn't the coastline shift, as it did at Herculaneum? She also points out how much we know about Pompeii from archaeological and epigraphical evidence, and how much of that evidence has been lost through 18th-century digging, tourism, the Allied bombing in 1943, and general neglect.

In the first chapter, "Living in an Old City," Beard focuses on the history of Pompeii, particularly in the phases preceding that of the AD 79 destruction. Campania had strong Etruscan and Greek undertones from the 6th century BC onwards, and the region wasmulti-lingual , to judge from evidence like a Latin message written in Greek letters (p. 11). Pompeii and its neighbors were allies of Rome by the early 3rd century BC. After Mummius defeated Corinth in 146 BC, he gave Pompeii some kind of trophy, on whose base was an inscription in Oscan, the native pre-Roman language of the region.2 The oldest part of the walled city is in the southwest, and eventually some grand houses were built along the western wall, commanding fine views of the sea. An interior house-wall incorporates an Etruscan column from a 6th-century-BC sanctuary; elsewhere, 2nd-century Etruscan terracotta reliefs from a sanctuary were reused as decoration in a garden wall. The 9,700-square-foot House of the Faun, at least 200 years old in AD 79, had a mosaic floor showing a scene from Greek history: Alexander the Great defeating Darius. Beard does not mention that at the bottom of the tumultuous scene of fleeing and dying Persians were 3 charming Nilotic scenes, rarely remarked upon because all the figured mosaics from this house were removed from the floors and installed on walls in the Naples Archaeological Museum.3 And in the architecture and decoration of its Forum and public buildings, Pompeii is clearly tied to Rome.

In "Street Life" (ch. 2) Beard observes that beneath the romance of rediscovered Pompeii lies a dirty city that produced some 6,500,000 kilos (14,300,000 pounds) of human feces and urine each year. One graffito warned passersby to "keep it in till you've passed this spot" (p. 56). Beard describes the streets, the shop signs (20 food and drink outlets within 600 meters [650 yards]) of each other, ads, noises (all night long), smells, public fountains (there were 40 of them, and few lived more than 80 meters [260 feet] from a fountain). She even notes a study of one-way streets in Pompeii. Beard brings alive the people, the markets, the colors, and the "children at their lessons, beggars plying for cash, traders and hucksters of all kinds, or local officials at their business" (p. 77). "All those statues" get only half a dozen lines of text (p. 77-8, 186), but these too deserve treatment equal to that given in these pages to so many other aspects of ancient Pompeii.

Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii (1834), a reconstruction of the House of the Tragic Poet, and recollections of the Satyrica by Petronius vividly introduce "House and Home" (ch. 3), bringing to life the entrance, the atrium, the food, and the houses themselves. Beard summarizes the evidence for the types of houses, which, like today's houses, have "a certain predictability to their layout" (p. 88). She includes rentals, dining, sleeping, and furniture, as well as images in a lararium, lamps, gardens, water, toilets, bone and bronze fittings for chests, and items that were in a chest at the time of the eruption. But courtyard and garden décor, for which there is so much evidence at Pompeii, is in need of greater emphasis.

In "Painting and Decorating" (ch. 4), Beard examines an unfinished room in the so-called House of the Painters at Work, then the black, white, blue, yellow, red, green, and orange paints found in the room, and the wide range of styles, subjects, programs, and decorative designs and patterns that have been found on the walls and columns of Pompeian houses. Criticizing the imposition of chronological development in the so-called Four Styles, Beard warns of the similarities among styles, the few survivals of the First and Second Styles, and touches upon the link between a room's use and its wall decoration. Some wall paintings enhance our understanding of ancient mythology; others give the illusion of a view; and still others are repeated enough times (some in both painting and mosaic) that they must evoke "well-known and 'quotable' masterpieces" (p. 144). Beard intersperses her narrative with remarks about modern impact and our incomplete perception of paintings cut out of walls and framed in the 18th century. She reminds us that the excellent appearance of the paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries are the result of "aggressive restoration" (p. 133) in 1909.

Beard humorously introduces "Earning a Living: Baker, Banker and Garum Maker" (ch. 5) by explaining how the home of a garum producer is identified by self-promoting mosaics in the atrium of his house. Beard covers grapes, olives, cereal crops, production, storage, slaves, farming, sheep, a cattle market, regulation of weights and measures, and light industry, but not much about the local ports or about foreign trade. There was, after all, a thriving trade in marble from Greece, and the skills of Greek artisans around the Bay of Naples were in great demand. To make her points, Beard enlists a wide range of archaeological material, such as finds from the Villa Regina near Boscoreale,4 and the tools and illustrations of dozens of crafts and trades found in the excavation of Pompeii. Her evidence ranges from painted shop signs, advertisements, and graffiti to carved memorials for a architect, a baker, and a pig-keeper. In the kitchen of a bakery (known as the House of the Chaste Lovers), a bird and a boar were cooking at the time of the eruption, a large decorated dining room probably served as a restaurant, and a stable beside the kitchen housed the delivery crew of five horses and donkeys that were fed oats and broadbeans.

"Who Ran the City?" (ch. 6) Here Beard tells a fascinating tale of election posters, precincts, and town council-members. There were probably about 2500 male voters -- no slaves, women, or children. The local government owned and rented out properties. Elected officials decreed the erection of public statues, folowing the rules that"old money always counted" (p. 204), and "public office of any sort entailed public generosity" (p. 212). It is particularly interesting that the so-called Building of Eumachia, which borrows many decorative details from important buildings in Rome, was sponsored by a local priestess.

"The Pleasures of the Body: Food, Wine, Sex and Baths" (ch. 7) begins with a description of a cage for a dormouse, but Beard gives no citations for this subject, which fascinated a number of visitors to the Royal Museum at Portici, including J. J. Winckelmann.5 Trimalchio's feast appears again, along with the silver service from the House of the Menander, and the mechanics of an actual meal. Pompeian grocery lists included bread, oil, wine, sausage, lard, cheese, beets, cabbage, mustard, mint, salt, onions, leeks, whitebait, pork, and maybe beef. Apparently there were 200 bars and restaurants in Pompeii, some of which were perhaps grocery stores. Graffiti provide good evidence for bars and brothels, but even so we cannot tell whether there were one or 35 brothels in Pompeii, and whether some of them were simply bars. Public baths too receive interesting archaeological and literary coverage, including a remark by Celsus, who lived at the same time as Tiberius, to the effect that baths were dangerously dirty for people with infections (p. 247).

Noting in "Fun and Games" (ch. 8) that the two permanent theaters in Pompeii seated 5,000 and 2,000, Beard asks whether the extensive theatrical iconography in wall painting meant that "the theatre provided a model for the whole spectacle of Pompeian wall-painting" (p. 255). Much entertainment in Pompeii had to do with the theater, including mime and pantomime with male and female actors. There are two portraits in the city of a famous actor, Caius Norbanus Sorex. 20,000 people might attend an event in the amphitheater, and the gladiatorial regalia suggest magnificent processions of the short-lived combatants.

"A City Full of Gods" (ch. 9) promises more than it delivers, because it contains little about the vast array of privately owned statuary in Pompeii. Although the chapter begins with a reference to the archaizing bronze statue of Apollo from the House of Julius Polybius, Beard does not mention that the statue was not simply a work of art, but that it held a tray.6 Beard covers other categories -- gods shown in wall paintings, statuettes from lararia, images of gods that were brought home from abroad, and a colossal head of Jupiter from the Temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva in the Forum. Was the ivory figurine of Lakshmi a souvenir brought home after a long journey? This chapter, which could contain a far wider array of topics and evidence, seems somehow undirected, though there is a very interesting section on the Temple of Isis, in which Beard covers its probable function, its rediscovery, and the Roman Isis-cult.

"Epilogue: City of the Dead" is too short, considering the extensive cemetery outside the Herculaneum Gate, its wide range of inhabitants, and the impact of that cemetery upon early tourists. "Making a Visit," a 3-page chapter, might have been eliminated, as first-time visitors will be far better served by one of the guidebooks produced by the Soprintendenza and available in the museum shop at the entrance to the site.7 Thorough explanations of terms and names that occur in the text obviate the need for a glossary. Unfortunately, there is no general bibliography, and readers who have been intrigued by a topic or a monument mentioned in the text may be disappointed not to find footnotes or endnotes, only a brief selection of Further Readings for each chapter.

Beard suggests answers to the questions that students always ask and that sometimes stymie their professors. What was the population of Pompeii? Estimates range from 6,400 to 30,000. Beard suggests that it was around 12,000, along with 24,000 additional inhabitants in the area. How many people died? Maybe 2000, but only about 1100 of them have been found, and some bones may have been misidentified early on as animals rather than children (p. 10). When was Pompeii rediscovered? In Antiquity it wasn't lost: former inhabitants and looters returned soon after the eruption to see what they could salvage. How far was the city from Rome? 240 km (144 mi.). Were Pompeians literate? More than 10,000 texts have been found in Pompeii, from loan agreements to wine labels, in Latin, Greek, Oscan, and even Hebrew; thus many people had to be able to read to do things like choose their wine and do their jobs. What was money worth? Wine cost 1 to 4 asses (copper coins: per glass or bottle isn't clear). Travelers and university students alike will thoroughly enjoy the many approaches to ancient Pompeii that Mary Beard presents here with clarity, enthusiasm, and humor.

Table of Contents

Living in an Old City
Street Life
House and Home
Painting and Decorating
Earning a Living: Baker, Banker and Garum Maker
Who Ran the City?
Fun and Games
A City Full of Gods
Epilogue: City of the Dead
Making a Visit


1.   For a thorough history of the excavations and the impact of Pompeii upon the modern world, see Alison E. Cooley, Pompeii, London: Duckworth Archaeological Histories, 2003.
2.   For such dedications, see Margaret Miles, Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Art as Cultural Property, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
3.   See especially Stefano De Caro, I mosaici la casa del fauno, Naples: Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Caserta, 2001. Studies of mosaics and of the House of the Faun are not given in Further Reading for ch. 1.
4.   The Antiquarium at Boscoreale, right beside the farm known as the Villa Regina, provides excellent illustration of the locale and its economy: see Grete Stefani, Uomo e ambiente nel territorio vesuviano: Guida all'Antiquarium di Boscoreale, Pompeii: Edizioni Marius, (2003).
5.   Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Sendschreiben von den herculanischen Entdeckungen, Dresden 1762, p. 57.
6.   For a photograph of the statue and its tray being excavated in 1977 in the triclinium of the House of Julius Polybius, and for bibliography, see Carol C. Mattusch, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2008, pp. 141-143.
7.   See, for example, Pier Giovanni Guzzo and Antonio d'Ambrosio, Pompeii, Naples: Electa and "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1998, and Antonio d'Ambrosio, ed., Discovering Pompeii, Milan: Electa, 1998.

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