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Saturday, October 24, 2009

City of the Living (on Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius)

Mary Beard The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008)

What I described as a dead city, Mary Beard, in her transformative study of Pompeii, The Fires of Vesuvius, reveals as a living—one might almost raucous—city of anywhere from 30,000 to 64,000 people. Beginning with the day of the eruption, August 25 79 CE, Beard takes us back to its earliest known roots, which may have been Etruscan, through various sieges and political developments which ultimately brought it into the Roman Empire.

Early in the book Beard warns us of easy assumptions, forcing us to question even what visitors appear to witness on their pilgrimages to the city, reminding us that although the city was destroyed in 79 CE, there had long been warnings and smaller eruptions of the impending volcano, most of the citizens consequently escaping, often with possessions in hand, long before August 25th. To date only around 1,100 bodies have been unearthed, and speculation is that, at most, 2000 people died in the August eruption. So what we see at Pompeii is not precisely a city with everything remaining frozen in time and space. In 62 CE, moreover, the city had been badly damaged in an earthquake, and as late as the Vesuvius eruption a great deal of repair work was still underway.

Although the world did not discover the wonders of Pompeii until the late 1700s, locals had known of the ruins for hundreds of years, over which time numerous digging looters had raided and destroyed several buildings. The original archeologists, moreover, were in some cases untrained and careless in their handling of artifacts. Even since its slow uncovering, the city has crumbled and faded in the Italian weather and sunlight. Bombings during World War II also damaged the city extensively. Five larger regions of the city remain unexcavated even today. In a sense, accordingly, what one witnesses in the vast array of buildings in Pompeii is a city often very different in appearance and quality from the Pompeii of 79 CE.

Step by step Beard takes us through the city through a series of lenses: general living, street life, house and home, painting and decoration, making a living, government, pleasure of the body, fun and games, and religion, all in a brilliant recreation of what it meant to be a Pompeiian citizen. The route, however, is not a easy one. Hundreds of standard assumptions are questioned, pet critical theories of scholars are challenged, and conflicting interpretations vetted. If there is one theme that the reader comes away with at the end of reading The Fires of Vesuvius it is that we know less about these subjects than we might presume.

Fascinating issues such as the filth of the streets (mixes of urine and dung [human and animal], garbage, and water)—which help explain several large stepping stones rising from the pavement— combined with night time dangers of near complete darkness, make for a clear sense of danger for the average citizen. The small size of rooms for the average houseowner, combined with cohabitation of slaves and extended family, further add to a modern reader's sense of discomfort. The noise, night and day, would seem to have been nearly unbearable, not to mention the proliferation of smells. Some of the most beautiful houses had to endure neighbors serving as fulleries (with its smells of hide and urine) or garum (fish oil) manufacturers. Homes and public buildings, inside and out, were apparently marked with graffiti.

Further, the myths we have of Roman dining, three to a couch while consuming a vast quantity of fish, fruit, and meats seems to have had little reality in Pompeii. While some houses, such as The House of the Golden Bracelet, show evidence of elegant dining (in this case, surrounding a small pool within a garden) Beard argues that most individuals were forced to eat out and even in wealthier homes eating shared more in common with fast food dining in contemporary American households, food consumed in various places throughout the house.

It was also a society very much controlled by a few wealthy men. Women had little power (an exception may have been the wealthy benefactor and priestess Eumachia) and wives spent most of their life raising the children and weaving. Men ruled the city, through aediles and duoviri, the latter of which were expected to pay for entertainments (public pantomimes or gladiator bouts) in return for their clout. The wealthy Pompeiian males found sexual pleasure in the bosom of his slaves (both male and female), while the poor sought sexual release in bars, some baths, or in the one likely brothel unearthed. Bathing, Beard explains, was a necessary social activity, but the pollution of the water was recognized to be a dangerous thing that could sometimes lead to infection, gangrene, even death.

Besides this more sordid information, the author also takes the reader on spellbinding trips through many of the homes, public buildings, and temples, pointing out their beautiful paintings and tiles, the arrangement of rooms, views, and other information, much of which is no longer visible. Beard explains to the lay reader the centrality, yet cultural mix of Roman religion. We begin to comprehend Pompeii's relationship to Rome itself. In short, by the time Beard completes these intellectual spins through the bustling, active city, we feel rather electrified by the exhausting trip. When the author returns us to the cities of the dead, the cemeteries just outside city gates, we realize that Pompeii is something we might never before have imagined. Too bad I had not been able to read Beard's remarkable book before my own stumble through the ruins of that city in 2007.

Los Angeles, October 22, 2009

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