As someone fortunate enough to have visited the remains of the legendary Roman city of Pompeii some years ago, I was doubtful as to whether a collection of objects from the city displayed in the British Museum could really hold the same level of fascination for me, or indeed tell me anything I didn’t already know. But if there are any doubters amongst the 50,000 or so people who have already booked advance tickets for Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, then I don’t think they will be in any way disappointed. The British Museum have brought both Pompeii and Herculaneum to life in a truly extraordinary way. This exhibition is entertaining, funny, shocking, heartbreaking, enlightening and utterly absorbing.
For starters, as incredible as walking the streets of Pompeii actually is – an experience that this exhibition has left me itching to repeat – there is simply not the concentration of incredible objects that there are to see here, either in Pompeii itself or in the Archeological Museum in Naples. Nor is the story of the lives, and subsequent deaths, of the people who lived there told in such a compelling way. We start in a bustling street of shops and taverns, turn into the house of a wealthy citizen – from atrium to living rooms to garden and to kitchen – and finally come to the famous casts made from the bodies found in the ruins.
Right at the beginning of proceedings, there is a startling reminder of the catastrophe that befell the city of Pompeii and the smaller town of Herculaneum on that fateful day in 79AD when mount Vesuvius erupted, in the form of a poor dog, twisted and contorted in agony, tied to a post outside a house and left to die by its fleeing owners. However, the bulk of the exhibition is devoted to the life, and not the death, of the people who lived here. Thus our attention is, for the large majority of the time, drawn to the people themselves: their daily routines, their processions, their eating, drinking and sexual habits, their politics, their jokes, their friends and their families. The exhibition is all the better for the fact that the bodies, frozen in terror as they shielded themselves from the burning hot gases, ash and rubble raining down on them, have been left until the end.
The great irony of the Pompeii and Herculaneum story is that had it not been for the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius, then we simply would not know anything like as much as we do about the lives of the people who lived there, and indeed of the people lived throughout the Roman world. For instance, more frescos have been found in Pompeii and Herculaneum than in the rest of the Roman world put together. Take away thousands of people’s lives the volcano may have done, in the most horrific fashion, but it also preserved their art, their processions, their tools, and even their food so extraordinarily well that some of the objects look almost as though they are new. The exquisite silverware, for example, looks ready to put on the dinner table and use. A foldable bronze stool used by the master of a house to sit on when he called a meeting or a gathering – a sella curulis – looks ready to sit on, while many of the frescos and mosaics are not only completely undamaged but are still so vivid they could make a tasteful addition to a house today. The effect is to transport us right back to Roman times, standing in the house of a wealthy Pompeiian family, almost as though we had been invited round to dinner.
The astonishing condition of the wooden objects was one of the biggest surprises for me. How could wood, of all things, not burn in a volcanic eruption let alone not rot underground when left for millenia? And why are all the wooden artifacts in the exhibition from Herculaneum and not Pompeii? Curiously, when Vesuvius erupted it effected Pompeii and Herculaneum in different ways. The pyroclastic flow (or, a cloud of superheated gas, dust and ash) that sped down the western slope of the volcano towards the sea hit the coastal town of Herculaneum at a temperature of around 400 degrees celsius, about 100 degrees or so higher than the one that hit Pompeii, on Vesuvius’s southern slope. Temperatures of this magnitude were enough to instantly carbonise – that is, to turn them into charcoal – anything in Herculaneum that was wooden, while in Pompeii they simply burned away to nothing. The process of carbonisation is also what preserved various foodstuffs, the most incredible of which is a loaf of bread, baked probably on the morning of the eruption and baring a stamp of the name of the slave who prepared it.
Plenty of the objects made me laugh. I mean, who wouldn’t be amused by a statue of drunk and urinating Hercules, or a winged phallus wind-chime? Indeed phalluses turn up frequently, both attached and unattached, life-like and comically oversized, in all sorts of places – wall paintings, sculptures, kitchenware, even on an oil lamp. Not only was the male member a symbol believed to have protective powers, and was thus to be found in almost any typical Roman house, but sexual imagery in general was clearly not regarded as in any way inappropriate for, say, the bedroom wall. One piece of overtly sexual art was deemed so shocking when it was discovered in the 18th century that it was hidden from public view and only viewable by Royal invitation (for some years all the archeological finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum were the property of the King of Naples). Indeed, the sculpture of the mythical figure Pan having sex with a nanny goat still comes with an explicit content warning before you enter the room – I reckon the Romans would have found that rather amusing.
The piece that amused me most of all was a fresco found on the wall of a tavern, a series of illustrations depicting your typical night in a Roman boozer, with dialogue written alongside the figures. In one scene, a woman, probably a barmaid or landlady, stands holding a jug of wine, while two seated men each insist that the drink it is for them. “Qui vol sumat” she says (“whoever wants it, have it”). In another, two men argue over a board game. “Exsi!” says one (“I’ve got it!”). “Non tria duas est” replies the other (“that’s not a three, that’s a two”). Soon the argument has escalated, with one man calling the other a nasty piece of work while the other retorts by calling him a “fellator” (or ‘cocksucker’). Finally the landlady shows up and declares “Itis foras rixsatis” (“If you want to fight, you can go outside”).
It wasn’t just in taverns that Romans drank too much and got carried away. In one fresco of a dinner party scene, a woman tells everybody to “get comfortable”, since she is about to sing. A man replies “go for it!” Meanwhile on one wall guests are instructed: ‘Don’t dirty the couch covers, keep your eyes off other people’s partners, and take your quarrels home with you’.
Revealing as this all is to what the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum liked to do in the leisure time, it is important to stress that it wasn’t all sex and fighting and drinking. This was a highly sophisticated society, with a democratic political system, piped running water, one-way and pedestrianised streets, and a thriving economy. They were clearly cultured as well – amongst the many examples of graffiti scrawled onto walls are more than 50 that contain lines of verse from the great Roman poet, Virgil. One person, perhaps a lovesick teenager, has written ‘A thousand of my sheep graze on the hills of Sicily’, a line from Virgil’s poem about a spurned lover.
These snapshots of daily life serve to emphasise how most ordinary Romans – away from the gladiators, soldiers or the emperors – were not unlike us in many ways. They aspired to the same things, like material wealth, social status, and acceptance from their peers, and tried to make the best use of their leisure time as possible. And, exactly as we do today, they liked to use their homes as a means of displaying their wealth and status and of impressing their peers, as well as spending much of their leisure time there.
A large part of the exhibition space is made to look exactly like a house that might have belonged to a wealthy citizen of Pompeii or Herculaneum. The main entrance hall, or atrium, of the house would be spacious and visually impressive, and decorated with busts and figures of one’s wealthy and/or highly respected ancestors, to show where the family had come from. The finest furniture and ornaments were, of course, reserved for the rooms where food was eaten, to impress dinner party guests. And if the head of the household wanted a quiet word with a business acquaintance or political associate, he may take him aside into a tablinum, just off the atrium but able to be sealed-off with curtains or shutters, where the paintings on the wall would illustrate how literate or learned he was. One such fresco, found on the wall of the tablinum of the house of Terentius Neo, is perhaps the most iconic and best-known piece of all the art from Pompeii. I had seen it in many books and documentaries and it was already a familiar image to me, but it was truly breathtaking – if a little smaller than I had imagined – in the flesh. Terentius was a baker, but he is shown in this fresco wearing a white toga and holding a papyrus scroll, both indications that he was running for public office. His wife stands beside him, holding a writing tablet and stylus, symbolising her literacy. The painting presents them as equals, in social standing and in intellect as well as in love.
Indeed, being a woman in ancient Rome may have meant not being able to vote or hold public office, but this did not mean that women could not be highly educated or become very wealthy in their own right, as the many depictions of women wearing clothes or jewellery indicating high social status, and especially the statue of Eumaclia, shows. A member of the priesthood, as indicated by her veil, Eumaclia paid for the construction of the biggest public building in Pompeii, the Forum, where her statue was placed. The other intriguing thing about the structure of Roman society at this time was that the status of slaves was surprisingly fluid, in as much as slaves could, if their grateful masters permitted, not only be freed but could inherit the estates of their masters. A list of Pompeii’s citizens carved into stone suggests that freedmen (ex-slaves) and the descendants of freedmen made up more than half of the city’s population in the first century AD. Some freedmen were capable of rapidly climbing the social ladder, like Lucius Mammius Maximus, a statue of whom is on display, a member of a prestigious guild of mostly freedmen, the Augustales. Evidently this was a dynamic, constantly evolving society, one in which a person’s status or wealth was probably never completely secure, which certainly makes me sympathise with the Pompeiians’ keenness to show of their symbols of wealth and status to their guests in their houses. It also explains why politics was so important to ordinary people, the social concerns and tensions no doubt meted out in political debates and campaigns. The exhibition contains a remarkable remnant from one young man’s campaign trail from 79AD – ahead of an election that would never take place – in the form of a notice that reads: “I beg you to make Samellins, an upstanding young man, Aedile, and also Lucius Albucius Aedile“. Aediles were the junior magistrates who ran the city along with the Dummvirs, or senior magistrates.
If it is history’s job to look to the people who have come before us to try and better understand what it is to be human, then Pompeii and Herculaneum, entire societies frozen in time, are surely one of the richest resources in existence. Completely unaware that a cataclysmic natural disaster would not only kill them but eventually lead to their processions – and in some cases, their bodies – on display in a museum two thousand years later, these were people with real hopes and fears, with a taste for art and culture, for good food and good company, and with a sense of humour. It makes objects like the completely in-tact baby’s crib, found containing woolen blankets that a baby was wrapped in on the day of the eruption, and the casts of the bodies of an entire family that died together in their house, all the more heartbreaking. But it also is what brings objects like the lighthearted, almost cartoonish skeleton mosaic so vividly to life. The lingering presence of skeleton images, which appear in frescos, mosaics, sculptures and tableware all over the exhibition, served as a reminder to Romans to seize the day, and to live life to the full, since death could be just around the corner. Like it was on the morning of the 24th August 79AD.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum opens today (28th March) and runs until 29th September 2013. For most people, tickets are priced for at £15, and can be bought online here. Tickets for senior citizens are £7.50, for job-seekers are £1 and for under-16s are FREE. This is the blockbuster exhibition of the year. Allow plenty of time!