The Fires of Vesuvius

Classics professor Mary Beard examines the mysteries of Pompeii.

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To read about Pompeii is to be disconcertingly reminded of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – so many people perished while performing such ordinary tasks (shopping, painting walls, baking bread).  All tried to flee the volcanic ash. Most succeeded. About 2,000 (of an estimated population of up to 30,000) did not.

Of those who escaped we know little or nothing. It’s those who did not whom we remember.

In The Fires of Vesuvius, Cambridge University classics professor Mary Beard restores Pompeii in all its bustling everydayness. She describes a mid-size city, one that was provincial yet highly culturally diverse, a hive of busy traffic, in-your-face advertising, and noisy commerce.

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She writes of a populace who voted, patronized brothels and bars, munched on the fast food of their time, and enjoyed going to the theater,

But as vivid and detailed a depiction as Beard is able to provide, what is equally fascinating about Pompeii is how much we do not know.

Everything, even the actual date of the eruption that buried the city, is unclear. (79 BC is the accepted date but this is far from certain). There are also perplexing signs that on that day Pompeii was already a city under stress. Some of the city’s major buildings stood in ruins before the eruption. Even the experts don’t know why.

And who were the victims? The crisis, it seems, had been foretold.

Were those trapped by Vesuvius typical Pompeiians or (more like Katrina than 9/11) only those who could not or would not flee?

Beard calls this the “Pompeii paradox,” the fact that “we simultaneously know a huge amount and very little about life there.”

That’s also what makes this learned but lively account a rather haunting read. Oddly familiar images of daily life two millenniums distant are juxtaposed with a sense of impenetrable mystery.

“A visit to Pompeii almost never disappoints,” Beard insists. To read this book is to agree.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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