Private lives of Romans

Pompeii is alive with new discoveries, old secrets and vivid reminders, writes Mary Beard.

Pompeii is unforgettable. It is the only place in the world where you can begin to understand, face-to-face, how first-century AD Romans lived: from the brothels and lavatories to the posh dining rooms and lavish bathing establishments (the modern spa, health club and gym rolled into one).

I have been studying the place for more than 30 years and the magic works every time. I slip down a deserted side street (and the site is big enough that there are still deserted side streets) and, without having to use much imagination, I have travelled back 2000 years – walking along the high pavements, hopping across the road on the stepping stones, peering at the ruts made by generations of Roman carts, or at the election slogans painted on the walls by hopeful candidates for office.

Not that Pompeii is a city "frozen in time". The eruption of Mt Vesuvius that destroyed it in AD79 wasn't quite as devastating as it is sometimes cracked up to be. This wasn't an ordinary little town going about its everyday business as usual – when, with no warning at all, it was covered in debris from the volcano and preserved as if in aspic. Vesuvius had been rumbling for days, if not weeks.

Most of the population, perhaps more than 17,000 out of an original 20,000 or so, managed to escape – taking their prized possessions with them. If Pompeiian houses today look under-furnished, that's partly because the owners had loaded their best furniture on a cart and scarpered.

They weren't all so lucky. The old, the ill and the hopelessly optimistic (or stupid) seem to have sat it out – and died. The skeletons of one family have been found, crouched together in a back room of a large house. One of the group was in her late teens and almost nine months pregnant. Presumably that explains why they stayed put. Others may simply have decided to get on with their jobs and ignore the warnings.

One team of painters was working on an expensive new wall decoration in another large property until the last minute. They certainly left in a hurry, knocking over their ladder and bucket of cement in the process – to be found by archaeologists almost two millenniums later. They may have been lucky in their attempt to escape.

More likely they have ended up as some of the dead "bodies" you can still see on the site, crouching in corners, head in hands, or clinging to each other as the debris fell, the shape of their clothing, even their facial expressions as they died, preserved.

These are now some of the biggest attractions of the ancient town: vivid, if ghoulish, reminders of the real people who lost their lives in the disastrous eruption. They are not literally "bodies" at all, of course. One ingenious 19th-century excavator had the bright idea of pouring plaster of Paris into the cavities left in the lava around skeletons, where flesh and clothing had decomposed and, hey presto, the shape of a living human being was recovered miraculously.

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Modern science has developed these techniques. We have recently discovered that you can pour plaster not only into the cavities left by corpses but into those left by the roots of plants as they decomposed under the volcanic debris. Whole gardens have been reconstructed with their flowers, fruit trees and cuttings in pots. Microscopic analysis can tell you even more: about the pollen flying around in the air in AD79; or, occasionally, when you find a cesspit, about what went through the digestive tracts of the ancient inhabitants of the town.

Eggs, we have learnt, were among the staples of the Pompeiian diet – and there were some nasty intestinal parasites around.

But the pleasure of Pompeii is that you don't need a microscope to make discoveries. You just need your eyes open. The fittings of lost doors and windows are there for all to see if you look hard enough. So, too, are the stairways in the private houses that led to upper storeys destroyed in the eruption (despite first appearances the Pompeiians did not live in bungalows, but what went on upstairs is hard to say). One of the most curious new discoveries has come from a closer look at those cart ruts that scar the Pompeiian streets.

Generations of visitors have wondered how two ancient carts could possibly have passed each other in the narrow streets of the town. The answer now seems to be that they didn't. Carefully examining the scrapes of cartwheels in the roadway and against the pavements, one team of archaeologists has worked out the direction of the traffic flow and claims to be able to plot the one-way street system operating in ancient Pompeii.

A visit to Pompeii hardly ever lets you down. But to have a really successful time, there are two essentials apart from wide-open eyes: sensible shoes (the bumpy roads and pavements are hard on the ankles) and a water bottle (a small one is fine: there are lots of ancient street fountains where you can refill).

It is also a good idea to do a bit of planning. If you put yourself at the mercy of one of the guides who tout for business at the entrance, you will miss out on the fun of wandering as you please. It's far better to work out an agenda in advance and find your way around with a map.

There are two basic rules here. First, don't get too interested too early. Most people arrive by the little Circumvesuviana railway from Naples or Sorrento and go in by the main entrance at the Porta Marina (the sea gate). From here you quickly come to the Forum, or the main piazza of the ancient town.

It's impressive enough in its way and many visitors spend ages there trying to work out what every building was. Don't. There are even more impressive things to come: brilliantly preserved bath buildings, a working-condition brothel and an amphitheatre, for example.

Second, take any opportunity offered. A lot of the best private houses of the town are locked for much of the time. But custodians do open them occasionally. If you spot an open door, go through it. All kinds of surprises might lie inside: little mosaic fountains; reconstructed gardens; the carefully crafted marble couches on which upmarket Romans dined.

Six of the best sights

For your planning, here are the must-sees in Pompeii:

1 The House of the Tragic Poet (it actually has nothing to do with a tragic poet but most of the houses got nicknames in the 19th century). This is among the best-preserved private houses and features the famous "beware of the dog" mosaic at its entrance — and it was the one that Edward Bulwer-Lytton chose as the home of his hero Glaucus in his engaging 1830s romp The Last Days of Pompeii.

2 The Temple of Isis. Bulwer-Lytton's villain in The Last Days was a priest of the Egyptian goddess Isis and her temple is one of the most vividly preserved in the whole town. It was visited by Mozart in 1769 and gave him ideas for The Magic Flute.

3 The brothel. This is now the most-visited building on the site (more visited than in antiquity, no doubt) and you may have to queue. It consists of five poky cubicles, with some explicit erotic paintings and a lot of graffiti from satisfied customers.

4 The Stabian Baths. These give you the best idea of what Roman bathing was like. There are richly decorated, vaulted rooms for a good steam (the men's section considerably richer than the women's), plus a swimming pool and exercise yard.

5 The Villa of the Mysteries. Just outside the city walls, this villa-cum-farm includes the most famous Pompeiian wall-painting: a mysterious scene wrapping around the four walls of a large reception room, featuring flagellation, phalluses and the god Dionysus.

6 The amphitheatre. One for the energetic (it's about as far from the entrance as it could possibly be) but worth the effort. One hundred and fifty years older than the Colosseum in Rome, it's the earliest amphitheatre to survive anywhere in the world.

Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Rome three times a week, with a stopover in Singapore. See singaporeair.com.

Naples is about two hours from Rome by train. See trenitalia.com. From Naples (or from Sorrento, where many visitors are based) the easiest way to get to the site is on the slow but steady Circumvesuviana railway line.

WHERE TO STAY

See sorrentotourism.com and sorrentohotels.net for all types of accommodation options in Sorrento. See inaples.it/eng/home and hotelsinnapoli.com for Naples.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Italian Government Tourist Board, Level 4, 46 Market Street, Sydney. Phone (02) 9262 1666. See italiantourism.com.au. Also see pompeii.it.

Mary Beard's myth-debunking book, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, is published by Profile.

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