Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mary Beard's "The Fires of Vesuvius"

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog “A Don’s Life.” Last year she applied the Page 99 Test to The Roman Triumph.

Now she has applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, and reported the following:
My own Page 99 would, I think, have pleased Ford Madox Ford. For it does indeed miraculously capture what my Fires of Vesuvius is trying to do.

Fires is meant not only as an introduction to Pompeii for those who have visited and for those who haven’t – but also as exploration of everyday life in an ordinary Roman town. (Pompeii is very special now, but it was very ordinary indeed 2000 years ago.) I try to show that an awful lot of what we are told about the ancient city and Roman life in general is (sadly...?) fantasy. Or at least it is a projection of our own world onto the Romans.

But I’m determined not to be one of those gloomy scholars who leaves every myth destroyed and nothing much in their place. Lots of the things we thought we knew about Rome aren’t true. But there are lots of unexpected things we CAN still discover. I mean Fires to be an entry point to a familiar and simultaneously quite alien world.

Page 99 hits that message home. We are in the middle of a discussion of “House and Home” at Pompeii. Who lived in the large Roman houses that we now see preserved there? What kind of families? Where did they drink, cook, eat and sleep? What was ‘home life’ at Rome like?

Well, for a start, as Page 99 insists, these families were not like ours (or like the stereotype of ours…). Large houses in Pompeii were not occupied by Mum and Dad, with a couple of kids (plus, this being Rome, a couple of slaves). The Pompeian house contained not so much a ‘household’, as a ‘houseful’. It was an agglomeration of people living behind the same front door -- a nuclear family, plus slaves, ex-slaves and a whole variety of hangers on, many acting as servants, but others running shops or commercial enterprises attached to these elite houses. (In some ways it was a bit like modern Naples, where you often find a carpenter’s shop or hardware store on the ground floor of grand homes.)

So – one difference between us and Rome lies in family and social structure.

Another is in domestic life and layout. Modern visitors tend to walk into the surviving houses at Pompeii and try to identify the bedrooms, the kitchen, the lounges and so on. Actually it’s harder than that. Most rooms in an ancient house were ‘multi-functional’, and we honestly have little idea of where people slept and how.

There are puzzling absences. As I observe on Page 99, there appears to be no such thing as a double bed in Pompeii. Did man and wife just squash up? And where did the slaves sleep? Perhaps on upper floors (most of which don’t survive), or maybe on the floor outside the master bedroom?

Intriguing questions.

Overall Page 99 offers a glimpse of a Roman life that we can understand and easily reconstruct – and yet is always tantalizingly just beyond our reach.
Read an excerpt from The Fires of Vesuvius, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.

Visit Mary Beard's University of Cambridge faculty webpage and read her blog, “A Don's Life.”

--Marshal Zeringue