This week, I’m very happy to type, I’m off to Naples for a holiday. This is a very welcome turn of events after a hectic term of teaching. Beyond that, though, it’s a chance to think about some of the things I’d like to write on in my next project. And nowhere are these more in focus, perhaps, than in the town of Pompeii.
I first saw Pompeii when I was aged 10 (and in the middle of my ancient history / ‘archaeologist or bust’ career phase). In truth, I don’t remember all that much. Leading up to this return visit, though, there has been a lot of reading (Mary Beard’s excellent history of the town and Robert Harris’ thriller being the past week’s material) and, of course, another look through the catalogue from last year’s wonderful British Museum exhibition. I could, of course, spend a year reading only a portion of what’s been written on the events of 79AD and what the town continues to mean to us today. Which makes it more interesting to think about why Pompeii, of all places, continues to fascinate so many of us.
Of course, there’s the manner of its destruction. It was scorched by the fires of a volcano and buried beneath its debris – and who could fail to be shocked into silent reflection by the thought of so many lives abruptly cut short: each cast of a dead body a reminder of how fragile our hold on life can be when set alongside a natural catastrophe on that scale?
Then there’s the level of preservation, and the fact that we know so much more about the Roman world because a small-to-middling town like Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum of course) has been excavated and explored. Yes, the ruins of Rome itself are impressive, but that was the capital city of an empire. Pompeii, on the other hand, had no claims to greatness in its own time, but it means so much to us because the everyday world that we see there has utterly disappeared just about everywhere else.
I think it’s the blend of those two things: the ordinariness of the town and its extraordinary fate that ensure that we will never be able to overlook it. It reminds us that history is filled with people like ourselves, and focuses our thoughts back on our own imprint on the world: whatever it might be that the archaeologists of the 41st century might find if they came to pick over our own settlements. No wonder poets, painters, and people like me find the place irresistible.
Photos to follow very soon…