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A City Unbottled: Mary Beard's Pompeii | The Nation

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A City Unbottled: Mary Beard's Pompeii

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R. CORMACKThe face of King Darius from Pompeii's Alexander Mosaic

About the Author

Joy Connolly
Joy Connolly, the author of The State of Speech, teaches classics at New York University.

Visit the ruins of Pompeii today, stroll to the famous "Villa of the Mysteries," and you will discover a room of enigmatic frescoes gleaming in the dim light, their crimsons and golds seeming as rich and resplendent as if they were painted yesterday. In a sense, they were: the walls of the room were heavily and repeatedly retouched, waxed and varnished with petroleum when they were discovered a century ago. The frescoes are typical of Pompeii's charms, the way its many relics seem to testify to the constancy of human invention and encourage us to forget the passage of time. Stroll around the site a little more, and you'll come across recognizable kitchenware, medical instruments and even graffiti: stickmen doodled in a doorway at the level of a child's eye, a naked Venus painted on a bake shop wall like a centerfold pinned up in a modern garage, the lament (or is it a boast?) "Atimetus got me pregnant."

But as Mary Beard shows in The Fires of Vesuvius, her marvelous excavation of Pompeii's history, the city is rarely what it is billed to be. A leading historian of Roman culture, a prolific essayist and an irrepressible blogger, Beard punctures conventional pieties about history and culture with formidable scholarly authority, always paying keen attention to the layering effects of the passage of time. Her Parthenon, published in 2003, wove unfamiliar episodes in the temple's history, notably its life as a mosque starting in the fifteenth century, into the tale of the monument's makeover into the quintessential icon of Western civilization. The Roman Triumph, from 2007, reassessed the sources for the eye-popping imperial parade billed as a triumph in shows like HBO's Rome, complete with horn-blasting legionaries and girls scattering rose petals. Beard's purpose was to expose how the legalistic, institution-minded bias of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians of the classical era attributed to the civic life of imperial Rome a far more regularized and ideologically orthodox dimension than it is likely to have enjoyed through most of its existence.

With The Fires of Vesuvius, Beard has produced a lusciously detailed, erudite account of life in ancient Pompeii, and in keeping with her earlier work, she first clears the evidentiary ground. She reveals how a city badly roughed up by earthquakes, rebuilt, shaken again, partly evacuated, blasted and blanketed by volcanic ash from Vesuvius in 79 CE, then tunneled into, looted and finally forgotten was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, excavated, rebuilt, bombed by Allied forces in 1943 and reconstructed once more, becoming the "city in a bottle" dramatically if misleadingly packaged for tourists. (It was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1997.) Sensitive to the fragility of evidence, Beard frankly admits that much about Pompeii, even the exact date of its destruction in 79, will remain unknown. The eyewitness account of the younger Pliny, who wrote that his naturalist uncle died getting a closer look at Vesuvius on August 24-25, is undermined by medieval manuscript variants recording several different dates and the on-site discovery of autumnal vegetables and a coin minted later in the year. Beard insists on only one thing: "'Our' Pompeii is not a Roman city going about its business, then simply 'frozen in time' as so many guidebooks and tourist brochures claim. It is a much more challenging and intriguing place."

Beard's intent isn't to spoil sunny Italian holidays with storms of skepticism. (She admits that she isn't immune to Pompeii's charms, including the Stabian Baths and the Temple of Isis.) Rather, the challenge of The Fires of Vesuvius rests in the way that its portrait of Pompeii overturns longstanding conceptions about the empire to which the city belonged. Most important is Beard's depiction of the chaotic diversity of Pompeian life--the sheer variety of its religious experience, its linguistic multiplicity, its class tensions--which raises far-reaching questions about the nature of cultural and political identity in the imperial Roman context. Pompeii is advertised today as a Roman city. Of its roughly 12,000 residents (by Beard's estimation), perhaps half of whom would have been slaves, which ones would have considered themselves Roman? What did the word mean?

Though the buildings in use when Vesuvius erupted in 79 were no more than 300 years old, the site where Pompeii stood had been settled for at least six centuries. Even in its earliest phases, Pompeii was a meeting place for Romans, Etruscans, indigenous Italians speaking Oscan and Greeks who had settled the Bay of Naples just fifty kilometers away. In the third century BCE the town became a subject ally of its neighbor 240 kilometers to the north; though most of its residents probably still spoke Oscan, it supplied soldiers for the Roman legions and followed Rome's lead in relations with Carthage and the local Greeks.

In 91 BCE the so-called Social War between Rome and its discontented Italian allies broke out, and traces of its intensity are still visible within Pompeii's walls, where Roman bullets and ballista bolts are lodged alongside World War II shrapnel. Scrawlings in Oscan discovered under a few layers of plaster may record instructions to the town's defenders, telling them to go "between the twelfth tower and the Salt Gate" or to fight "where Matrius, son of Vibius, is in charge." In the aftermath of the war, Italian settlements were integrated more tightly into the civic fabric of Rome. Pompeii was refounded as a Roman colony for army veterans, its name changed to Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeiana, signifying its status as a settlement for veterans who had fought under Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, whose divine patron was Venus. Its Oscan chief magistrate was replaced by magistrates called by Latin names, like the duoviri, the "two men" designated to govern town business. Latin overtook Oscan as the language of public records in stone.

But to conclude that Pompeii became somehow fully "Romanized" would be wrong. The evidence of inscriptions and graffiti suggests that Pompeians living at the time of the eruption spoke Oscan, Greek and possibly Hebrew as well as Latin. In this they likely resembled many denizens of the empire now referred to in most histories as "Romans," such as the poet Ennius. A famous early literary innovator, the first to write Latin epic in Greek hexameter, Ennius exerted profound influence on later authors like Virgil. And he was fond of remarking that he had three hearts, because he was fluent in Greek, Oscan and Latin. As the historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has recently argued in his book Rome's Cultural Revolution, the big, three-hearted life of Ennius cannot be fully comprehended as an example of the "local" being subjected to "external," "global" or "colonizing" influences. Wallace-Hadrill uses the concept of "code-switching" to describe how, like Ennius, many Romans would have shifted from one language and one set of cultural expectations to another, even within a single sentence. The notion of code-switching suggests that the definition of "Roman" would have changed as the empire grew, not only as Romans encountered unfamiliar languages, customs and religious practices but because Romanness would now have incorporated the experiences of conquest, annexation, tribute-squeezing and governance. Pompeians, then, were not simply "Italic" or "Hellenized" or "Romanized" or some immigrant "blend" of hyphenatable ingredients: they were in fact "Roman," if not exactly in the way we are accustomed to using the word.

To grasp the significance of this point fully, it helps to recall what the city has meant to its visitors since excavations began in the 1740s. Pompeii became a Grand Tour attraction during an age of revolutions that transformed ideas about the role that history should play in shaping the present. The American historian Edmund Morgan has said that "all government...rests on fictions, whether we call them that or self-evident truths"; and while he was referring to the powerful fiction of the sovereignty of the people, his remark also applies to the image of classical Rome that loomed large in the minds of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political theorists in Geneva, London, Paris, Philadelphia and Caracas--an image preserved in ostensibly pure material form in Pompeii's evocative ruins.

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