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Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, Pompeii: The Living City. London: Phoenix, 2005, paperback edition. Pp 417, 27 plates (some colour), 3 maps, ISBN 0-7538-2076-5. £8.99.
Reviewed by Helen Goodchild
is probably the best studied of all Roman cities, due to the unique nature of
its preservation, and has attracted scholars from a wide range of disciplines
since its discovery in 1738. Indeed,
its fame goes beyond academic circles into the popular imagination and has been
the recent subject of both a fictionalised history of the eruption by
best-selling author Robert Harris
and a primetime BBC drama.
In this context, an updated account of life in the ancient city based on the
most recent studies is timely.
book begins with a lament on the fading splendour of the ancient ruins of
Pompeii, damaged by exposure to time, tourists, and thievery. They argue that it
is difficult for the tourist to imagine life within the walls due to the
prolonged exposure of the city and the removal of antiquities – either by
museums or by clandestine activities.
longer does the casual visitor have the information needed to imagine the city
in its full glory, or bring to life, in the minds eye, those who inhabited it”
is the primary aim of the authors – to bring together the huge body of
scholarly work in order to create an imaginative reconstruction of the city and
its inhabitants. This is not merely
a study of the city of Pompeii itself, but rather a glimpse into the social
history of a Roman ‘backwater’ in the last years before its destruction in
AD 79. The vast corpus of data from
studies of epigraphy, environment, skeletal data, material culture, and many
other sources means that writing a synthesis that is both readable and a useful
resource for the scholar is a difficult task. However, Butterworth and Laurence
have succeeded in producing an extremely readable account, accessible to the
general public and students of Roman history and archaeology alike.
historical narrative, part novel, the book approaches the history of Pompeii’s
final years in an original and evocative way. Each chapter is themed but also
runs chronologically from the accession of Nero in AD 54. The chapters are
arranged as a mixture of history and fiction, with the fictional sections
printed in italic text to differentiate them from the historical narrative. The
combination of Ray Laurence, a well-established scholar of Roman archaeology and
history, and Alex Butterworth, a writer and dramatist, succeeds in bringing
Pompeii to life with a blending of fact and fiction. Butterworth and Laurence
cover a wide range of topics including slavery and the position of freedmen in
Roman society, imperial and provincial government, religion, medicine, and the
inevitable prostitution and sexuality. Events in the city, such as the riot with
its neighbour Nuceria in AD 59 and the devastating earthquake of AD 62 are
covered in detail, particularly the responses of the local population and
themes are all explored through the context of figures known, in variable
detail, from the historical record (primarily the graffiti), who are then
fleshed out in the fictional narrative. In some cases the lack of detail about
particular individuals has resulted in a high degree of artistic licence.
However, the authors state clearly in their preface that this is conjecture and
they provide more than enough scope for themes to be investigated further using
the original source material. Similarly,
they recognise that the fact one third of Pompeii still remains unexcavated
means that any new discoveries might significantly change current
interpretations of the ancient city.
this is essentially a popular book, the division of each chapter into themes,
combined with a comprehensive index and notes, makes Pompeii a useful
introductory text for students of Roman social history. As well as giving
interesting insights into the history of the city, information on the imperial
regime of the time is threaded throughout the book; Nero’s promising
beginnings due primarily to the guidance given by Seneca and Burrus, and his
moral decline. It also covers in later chapters the fall of this regime and the
instability of the country during the year of the four emperors, demonstrating
Vespasian’s rise to power. By giving such a broad overview of the main themes
of social history, however, there is insufficient space to develop these themes
in any great detail, but for those wanting to follow up on any of the arguments,
the comprehensive notes guide the reader towards the original source material
and further reading, although inevitably there are a few gaps. The problems of
dealing with such a vast corpus of data collected over a long time period and
with variable recording skill also mean that it was often necessary for the
authors to make leaps of imaginative reconstruction that succeed in their aim of
creating a vivid picture but could be misleading for readers with little
background knowledge of the period. The colour plates add context to the
history, showing primarily wall paintings and sculptural reliefs to illustrate
aspects of the Pompeiians’ daily life. In particular, there are interesting
examples from the house of Caecilius Jucundus – himself a victim of the
earthquake of AD 62 – showing the damage done and attempts at restoration. The
book would have benefited from more of such illustrations, as well as the
addition of photographs showing the buildings of Pompeii itself rather than
final chapter, Apocalypse, deals with the eruption itself.
Although this chapter has no fictional section, it sketches out the last
hours of Pompeii’s inhabitants based on archaeological evidence such as the
location of bodies as well as Pliny the Younger’s famous account.
It is thought that many people had, and took, the opportunity to leave
Pompeii before the eruption, as the volcano had been issuing warning signs –
smoke rising from the mountain’s slopes, dying crops and animals, and later
earth tremors – but many of the city’s inhabitants remained.
Butterworth and Laurence explain their actions as perhaps the attitude of
a populace used to such acts of nature since the earthquake of AD 62, those who
could not be moved for reasons of ill health, old age or pregnancy, or those who
were unable to leave such as shackled gladiators and other slaves.
It is these characters that we sympathise with as they endure the fall of
lapilli and the pyroclastic flows that took Pompeiian lives at various stages
during the prolonged eruption of over 24 hours.
Living City was the winner
of the Longman-History Today Next Generation Prize 2006 and deservedly so.
This prize is awarded for the book most likely to “stimulate
enthusiasm for, and involvement with history, among secondary school-children
…[with an] emphasis on books that seek an innovative approach to conveying
historical information and ideas with flair and imagination”.
This book achieves just that. Although
Pompeii does not, in itself, add significantly to the field of research,
it does provide a very readable synthetic account of the state of research in
the city and acts as a good introduction to Roman social history to readers of
varying backgrounds. It delivers its aims, in that it provides a
“micro-history of that place and its ill-fortuned inhabitants… a portrait of
a society oblivious to the tragic destiny that awaited it” (p.7).