Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Two ordinary cities suffered one extraordinary fate that has fascinated the world since it’s tragic occurrence in AD79.  They remained hidden right up until the 1700’s, probably because one of them, Herculaneum was buried under twenty metres of ash, following a Pyroclastic surge that incinerated anyone and anything it touched with it’s four hundred degree heat.  Pompeii was not buried so deep, a mere four to five metres by comparison, from the eruption that climbed twenty miles into the Roman sky.

This post is quite late, given the exhibition has now finished, but it is one of the most fascinating that I have seen at the museum and I wanted to post something on it.  Focusing on the ordinariness of both cities, Pompeii a bustling city of twelve thousand to fifteen thousand people and the smaller Herculaneum, with it’s population of four to five thousand.  They had baths, temples and theatres, and mixed populations of rich home owners, freeborn shop keepers, ex slave craftsmen and slaves and a startling amount was preserved under the ash and debris from the volatile Vesuvius.

Opening with the cast of a dog contorted in agony, as you start in the street the walls are lined with eerie photos of empty streets and houses.  You can see in them pedestrianized streets with stone bollards, but there were also one way thoroughfares, roads scarred with wheel ruts worn by traffic.  An extraordinary amount of taverns were found, where intoxicating drinks and women could be bought for a price.

The exhibition is built around a typical home, and as you move from room to room objects discovered from both cities are on display.  The Atrium opens with a guard dog mosaic and behind that stands a Herm, a marble or wooden pillar topped with a bust, which initially draws the eyes, but look down, it also, bizarrely, has a phallus half way down, for protective powers.
There were generally a few cubiculum’s off of the atrium, where the Romans slept or not, depending on who they were in there with.  Erotic images were displayed, admired for fertility connotations, superstitions or purely for humour.  Not just images either, there is an oil lamp shaped like a satyr with a large phallus to watch over the bed while allowing you to see what you’re doing.  Jarring heavily with the raging sexuality was a carbonised wooden cot, babies were kept in the bedrooms as well, and the little occupant of this particular one died wrapped in a blanket.  It is a deep pause in the middle of the frivolity of the bedroom, and the exhibition.  Possibly time to grab some air, and next up is the hortus, or garden.  While admiring the brilliant statues of stags being attacked by hunting dogs, hewn from single blocks of marble, a couple moved up behind me,
“I’m going to see the mega cock again!” the guy announced as he darted off to the naughty corner. I turned to his girlfriend.
“You must be so proud”
“It’s the main reason we came back” she sighed, with an indulgent smile on her face.
I was laughing as I took in the brilliant statue of Hercules, worse for wear, slight paunch pushed out as he leans back and urinates.  It did confirm though what I thought, people came back to this exhibition, members certainly.  I went three times in all, an interest in the Romans certainly helps, but this is also a story about ordinary people made extraordinary. In the naughty corner I ignored the cock this time, but did stare at the not inconsiderable statue of Pan and the goat, described as ‘Pan making love to a nanny goat’.  Whether the nanny goat would agree, as Pan tugs her beard and his penetration is in full view of all and sundry, is something we’ll never know. It was disturbing, less for the fact that this would have been on full display in the middle of a garden, but for the fact that it had been carved at all, perhaps a bit of nineteenth century prudishness lingers on within me, or maybe it was because there was a goat involved.  The main draw of the garden though are three massive frescoes that decorated a garden room, depicting marigolds, poppies, oleander bushes, plane trees, wood pigeons and jays, a cleverly illustrated fantasy to bring the garden inside.

It was the living room that contained my favourite pieces.  Two small mosaic panels featuring tragic theatrical masks, carefully depicting a lion and monkey looking faces in yellows, oranges and browns, that would have been put into plainer floors.  The best mosaic though was a dancing death figure, with a wine jug in each hand, the centrepiece of a dining area no less, a subtle way no doubt, of telling your diners to seize the day, while they enjoyed breads, olive oil, figs, almonds and beans, all of which have been preserved and are on display in the kitchen area, along with a shrine and some notes about the toilet, usually lumped with the kitchen.

Moving on through a projected timeline of events you come to the most poignant part of the exhibition, with a collection of personal items found on people who had perished, these conjure up innumerable stories about them and their owners, but as you turn around you are faced with the harsh reality of the eruption.  In the eighteen sixties archaeologists began pouring plaster of Paris into the voids in the ash, forming detailed bodies of those that had been caught in the grip of the eruption. Barely crawling, the woman in resin is one of a kind.  You hope the rutted outline of her body is the drying of the resin, not her flesh as she was overcome.  Finally a family of four found together in an alcove.  You have just wandered through their home, and now you witness their instantaneous and horrific death.  Even as I returned for the third time, I could only look on in mute horror and sadness at such a tragic fate.

All we can do now is offer our condolences by an appreciation of the richness of historical detail that Vesuvius has bequeathed future generations, and this exhibition allowed a greater number outside of Italy the chance to do this.  I’ve not been to Pompeii or Herculaneum, but having seen them bought so vividly to life, perhaps I will.


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