All Fired Up: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Statue from British Museum Pompeii exhibition” ‘Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?’ said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those effeminate folds which proved him to be a coxcomb.” So begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of PompeiiThe year was 79 AD, the  towns were twofold- Pompeii and its close neighbour Herculaneum- and Vesuvius did what volcanoes do from time to time. In destroying the towns utterly, Vesuvius preserved them perfectly for posterity, they waited patiently to be rediscovered so they could reveal their secrets.

“This exhibition explores the everyday lives of Romans in their homes,” declares the pamphlet that accompanies the British Museum’s blockbuster. On the surface of things, this seems perhaps a bit too simple, the job has already been done. Surely the volcano preserved it perfectly? Just throw in some interpretation and Bob is your proverbial Uncle. Except that when Vesuvius blew its top, it didn’t capture everyday life in a Roman town, but rather as Mary Beard described it; life interrupted.

We have evidence that at the end, Pompeii was a town in the midst of a mass exodus, as far away from the everyday as it is likely to be and yet the site still offers the best (material) evidence for what life was like. The Pompeiians couldn’t take it all with them as they fled, although a few tried.

Cave Canem

On the front of many a house today you’ll see a notice. Sometimes this notice is discreet, other times this notice is huge. It seems this notice has always been on the front of houses, and it seems like it always will be.

And what is this notice? “Beware of the dog”, or, if you lived in Pompeii: “Cave Canem”.

And where is the house? Well, today it could be yours, but for the purposes of this blog, the house is the villa the British Museum has recreated for the purposes of the exhibition.

The British Museum's recreated Roman Villa
The British Museum’s recreated Roman Villa
dog mosaic from Pompeii
Cave Canem
Cast of dog from Pompeii
The dog from Pompeii

Poignantly, you can see the cast of the dog still wearing his collar as well as his warning sign. It packed a real emotional punch, to see the dog in life and in death.

Coitus Est in Horto…

Since it’s rediscovery, Pompeii has attracted a reputation that’s less than respectable. To the archaeologists who rediscovered the town, some of the artefacts uncovered were not for sensitive eyes to see. Sculptures such as this one of Pan copulating with a nanny goat were kept away from public view, locked away in a  gabinetto degli oggetti riservati (room of reserved objects) only to be revealed to the general populace – rather than just white men of privilege-  in 2000. According the British Museum, the reaction to the statute has been everything “from amusement to embarrassment and, occasionally, horror”

Pan and the goat
Pan and the Goat

This piece came with a parental advisory notice in the display, but that seemed to add to its allure. The crowd gathered and lingered around this statue, their reaction more fascination than horror.

Pompeii’s patron was the goddess Venus, a deity famous for her sexual indiscretions, so it is perhaps unsurprising that her city met its end through a volcanic incident (her husband, Vulcan, lived in a volcano). People have interpreted the way the city was decorated as indicative of its patron, indeed when I was exploring, one of my strongest impressions was:

But the willies are not what they appear to be: “The phallus is protective,” said Paul Roberts, the exhibition curator, “And its funny. One thing it isn’t is sexual.”

It was funny, and there were a surprising amount of laughs to be had…

Come Dine With Me

Imagine you are hosting a dinner party in Ancient Rome, but had no idea how to behave. Luckily for you if you had visited the House of the Moralist you’d have three basic rules for the Ultimate Dinner Party.

  1. Let water was your feet and a slave dry them, Cover the couch with a cloth – take care of our covers.
  2. Take those lustful looks and sweet, flirting eyes from that other man’s wife; a modest expression is more fitting
  3. …Please put off those boring squabbles, and if you can’t then go home and take them with you!

I chuckled when I read these.  What amazing advice!

It ends with a bang?

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum really does explore the life of  the Roman towns, but death is never far away. Death book-ends the show, with the guard dog guarding the casts that lie at the far end of the house.

The humour helped me think about actual Roman life, and the crowds in the exhibition recreated the sense of the buzzing towns – but I think this was more by accident than design, but the sight of those casts will stay with me forever.

Skeleton Mosaic from Pompeii


If you liked this post, you might enjoy the British Museum themed badges at the Museum of Museum Badges.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. julietteboyd says:

    Reblogged this on Historical Musings and commented:
    I am really looking forward to seeing this. Even though I’ve been to both sites in Italy, many of these objects are new to me, and look incredible.

  2. Very good information. Lucky me I recently found your blog by accident
    (stumbleupon). I have bookmarked it for later!

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