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.”