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

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.

The most useful political fictions tend to be reductive, and the Enlightenment view of Rome is no exception. The city has always been seen as two-faced–seat of republican civic virtue and liberty, den of imperial pagan decadence. The duality dates back to Roman writers like Sallust, Cicero, Livy and Tacitus, who viewed imperial conquest both as evidence of divine favor and as a potential threat to the freedom, discipline and social cohesion that represented to them the best of their culture. From these classical writers to Montesquieu and Rousseau, one concept endured. The virtuous Rome was a traditional Rome, and tradition meant unity: a single language, a shared history, communal civic worship, an empire gained under the united leadership of a strong senatorial order that assimilated the foreign and alien. By contrast, the post-republican autocrat-ruled empire was the motley province of authors like the first-century satirist Juvenal, who lamented the river of foreign speech flowing like a sewer into Roman streets, the fraudulent cults imported from the East, the Greek philosophers seducing virtuous youth and the positions of power being tossed by unthinking emperors to immigrant freedmen unversed in Latin.

In the tale of republican Rome’s decline and fall, eighteenth- and nineteen-century political thinkers found an exemplary fiction of cultural homogeneity and the terrors of its loss. Especially in France and America, new republics faced with the challenge of establishing a nation out of large populations, politicians and thinkers settled on the formation of a common culture as the best strategy for the consolidation of political and social identity. Even those who preferred the model of Athens’s radical democracy tended to import what they admired of Athenian cultural homogeneity into their image of Rome as an assimilation success story. It was a city where all citizens spoke Latin (and whose elites enjoyed the class-specific bond of knowledge of Greek, corresponding to the Anglo-elite use of French), farmed the land, worshiped the gods of Olympus, voted in assemblies, fostered civic virtue and moral austerity and sent their sons to fight for the expansion of the empire. Partly because this fiction also made convenient room for a touch of commerce and a few immigrants from the provinces, which made for a nice correlation with the experience of European industrial societies, Rome supplied an attractive model for what promised to be the totalizing culture of the modern nation-state.

In the wake of modernity’s messy experiments with empire, this idealized image of Rome has grown tarnished, but the tendency to equate the “good Rome” with its elite dream of civic virtue and cultural cohesiveness persists. This goes beyond the fantasies of republican liberty promoted by sword-and-sandal spectacles like Gladiator. Recent interest among political theorists in the Roman tradition of republican thought, for example, has revived the idea that the essence of Rome’s legacy is its ideal of community bound together by zeal for self-government and a deliberative consensus regarding the common good. Michael Sandel argues in Democracy’s Discontent that republican ideals offer a promising corrective to our hyper-proceduralized, impoverished civic life. Even Cullen Murphy, whose popular book Are We Rome? rightly describes the empire as a sprawling, diverse place, suggests that the United States might be able to evade the plagues that slowly ate away at Rome by fortifying “institutions that promote assimilation” and by establishing a national service program for American youth, a modern version of Rome’s ancient military ethic. “‘We’re all in it together’ is a spirit that Rome lost,” Murphy warns.

Perhaps. But the compellingly realistic picture of communal cohesion that Beard paints, a family-focused network of small-town loyalties, seems unlikely to strike many of us nowadays as exemplary. And as she notes, the idea that ancient Mediterranean societies were intensely politicized, with debate heating up taverns and the Forum, stands up shakily against evidence like the highly formulaic election posters inscribed in red and black paint all over Pompeii’s walls. These seem as likely to have been encouraged by obligations to patrons, family members and friends as by enthusiasm for particular ideologies or policies. With her characteristically intuitive grasp of human foible and fraud, Beard takes note of several posters among the more than 2,500 found so far that strike her as the products of late-night carousing or negative campaigning, announcing the support of barmaids, runaway slaves and pickpockets for a few unlucky candidates no doubt dismayed by the trick publicity.

Beard ventures no claim about the broader impact of her down-to-earth portrait of Pompeii. But it will surely help the broad readership for whom it is written to distinguish between the ideals of a closely knit ancient elite and the seedier realities of the Roman social and political experience. Such a distinction should make Rome more interesting to contemporary political thinkers, not less. With its focus on labor, education and religion, The Fires of Vesuvius is a testament to how much Roman studies has to offer the contemporary political imagination. Well-informed in the latest research in demography, the history of Roman politics, architecture, ancient economics, feminist and post-colonial studies, Beard probes the experience of men and women, free and slave, rich and poor. Along with the formal rituals that circumscribed urban social interaction, such as the morning salutatio, when clients lined up to greet their well-off patrons, she describes the busy working life of the city, whose lack of zoning meant that the pungent, noisy labor of metalwork, tanning and garum production (the Romans’ preferred condiment, a sauce made from rotted, fermented seafood) permeated the air. One of Beard’s more controversial points involves the probable literacy rate of the poor. From the graffiti scrawled all over the city, from irreverent comments on a rich family’s imposing tomb to quotes of Virgil on the walls of a building near the Stabian Baths that appears to have been used as a brothel, she concludes that “humble” working-class Pompeians had some command of reading and writing. Not every scholar will agree. W.V. Harris, author of Ancient Literacy (1989), argues that severely limited access to education in the Greek and Roman worlds kept levels of literacy low.

Against the backdrop of Roman civic religion, an area Beard knows intimately, she sketches a variegated world of religious practice, embodied in the Temple of Isis, a lovely ivory statuette of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, bottles made for kosher garum and the words “Sodom” and “Gomora” scribbled on a wall of a small dining room. Similarly, though phalluses were prominently depicted everywhere in the city–“phalluses greeting you in doorways, phalluses above bread ovens, phalluses carved into the surface of the street”–Pompeii was far from a purely male-run show. In Beard’s account, women emerge as important players in the city’s commerce and politics. One woman finances the construction of the largest building in the Forum, adorning it fashionably with statues copied from the Forum of Augustus in Rome; another scrawls her support for her grandson’s run for office on a city wall, on one of more than fifty graffiti (most of these apparently sincere) that name women as the backers of candidates. Barred from electoral office, though they actively participated in the politically inflected religious life of the city, wealthy women may have held metaphorical court in their homes, and Beard presents these as the combination of private refuge, entertainment venue, business office and place of worship that they were.

Each age may believe it chooses its own objects of veneration and study, but there is no such thing as a cultural tabula rasa: like a wave that changes the shape of the sea as it rushes forward, the convictions of one era form the horizons of the future as well as understandings of the past. Scholars of ancient Greece and Rome have never exactly ignored the ideologically charged history of Western convictions about classical antiquity, but most have been content to coast upon rather than scrutinize its authority.

Beard’s generation of classical scholars is the first to make the transmission and reception of the concept we call “the classical past” the object of expert, theoretically informed study. Into the analysis of ancient texts and material evidence they have integrated the hows and whys of what we know about ancient Greece and Rome–the host of filters created by the politics and pedagogy of empire, national identity, religion and class. Their success so far–The Fires of Vesuvius is a prime example–suggests that the positivist mindset that has long characterized the field of classics is gradually modulating into a productively self-critical approach to history. Here the classical past is viewed as the collective composition of generations of storytellers, from Homer and Thucydides to modern members of the American Philological Association and the makers of Troy and 300. Some wish the past to mirror the present, and others privilege difference; some are openly eager to create fantasy, while others aim to set right a picture distorted by prior prejudices. These desires and purposes are usually (though not always) self-evident. The point that permeates Beard’s work, along with much of the best of classical cultural and literary studies, is that part of the job of studying the past is to examine the assumptions of each storyteller and the effect each of their stories has, ripple-like, on the rest. Beard’s depiction of Pompeii manages to do justice to all its alien strangeness while prompting us to reflect on the significance of felt resemblances between its experience and our own–in the formation of cultural identity, habits of consumption, political nepotism, religion, sexuality, violent entertainments and much more.