Paul Roberts’ LIFE AND DEATH IN POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM

At last, I fulfill the pledge I made last June.

Paul Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Oxford University Press in conjunction with The British Museum Press, Oxford and London, 2013.

The first thing that strikes you about Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (hereafter Life and Death) is how very large, and how very glossy, it is. It’s a hardback volume, approximately 30cm tall and more than 20cm wide. It stretches over 300 pages, with more than 400 full-colour interior illustrations, and it’s a heavy, unwieldy book to try to read anywhere but at a desk or table. (Don’t try to read it in bed or on your lap: it’ll wreck your wrists. I speak from experience.) It is a book built around the exhibit Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the British Museum, and part of its mandate is clearly to be the kind of visually gorgeous coffee-table book that wealthy visitors to museums buy in the giftshop – without, necessarily, any prior knowledge of the thing exhibited – and take home to display, or to show their friends, or to bone up with later. (The dustjacket offers a RRP of USD$45.00.)

And it is visually gorgeous. It’s also a rather well-thought-out and useful book for the student of the Roman world, whether serious academic or interested dabbler, in many ways because of its visual component: it isn’t often, outside of a museum catalogue, that so many different types of things – everyday items, tools, wall-painting, graffiti, sculpture, plans and interiors of houses, etc – are pictured in this quantity and quality. And museum catalogues rarely give quite so much contextual information.

A brief note on where I’m coming from in relation to this book: my research focus has never been primarily with Roman things – although my undergraduate education and the fact that I research things to do the ancient Mediterranean means I have a reasonable degree of competency with the matter of Rome. I can see if something is largely accurate or inaccurate, is what I’m saying, but details are likely to escape me one way or the other.

That said, Life and Death is decidedly on the largely accurate side, as well it should be: it’s written by one of the British Museum’s Roman art and archaeology curators, Paul Roberts, who has a fine track record in other publications.

It’s divided into nine chapters, not including the introduction, and includes notes, bibliography, list of exhibits, and a decent but by no means entirely comprehensive index. (But I’m of the school that believes indices should include absolutely everything humanly possible.) Those chapters are structured in such a way as to move from the urban environment of the town and the streets deeper into the house, so that it is as though one starts out walking around the towns and proceeds to tour more intimate spaces – that is, until the final chapter, which is about the death of the cities rather than the ways of dying and dealing with death of the cities’ inhabitants prior to the catastrophe of the 79CE eruption.

Although there is, I suppose, a case to be made for death as the most intimate space of all.

“I: The Urban Context” deals with the world in which the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum moved: the shape of their streets, the history of their towns, the structure of their civic offices, whose voices can be reconstructed as having a public presence, the images that lined their streets, social mobility and the role of women. As we move from “The Urban Context” to “II: Living Above The Shop,” with its discussions of trade and industry, production and domesticity, and the relationship of both to the wider civic landscape, and from there deeper into the house with “III: Atrium,” “IV: Cubiculum,” “V: Garden,” “VI: Living Rooms and Interior Design,” “VII: Dining,” and “VIII: Kitchens, Toilets and Baths,” it becomes clear that Roberts is engaged as much in writing a social history of the cities as he is in presenting the archaeological remains. Pompeii and Herculaneum lend themselves well to social history, due to the much more comprehensive than usual nature of what was preserved by the disaster, but Roberts’ social focus has odd gaps.

This is, I suspect, due as much to the focus of the British Museum exhibit (with which, we recall, the book is directly associated) as it is to Roberts’ own lack of broad academic engagement with a cross-section of ancient Campanian society: the exhibit, and thus the book, focuses on the houses of the wealthier sort – the kind with extensive decoration, atria, gardens and so forth – so that, unlike in Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum, there’s no real discussion of the smaller sort of houses and the people who must have lived in them. But within the limits of the exhibition’s focus, Roberts does a solid job of reconstructing a broad cross-section of the kind of people, and the kind of activities, that took place inside those houses. He is especially good at pointing out the variety of statuses of people who moved inside those houses, slaves and freedman as well as freeborn citizens, and the various uses to which spaces in the houses were put; and also at drawing attention to, and complicating the reader’s understanding of, the position and the roles of women within the society of the cities, and within and outside their houses. He reminds us that it might be fruitful to consider the Roman women of the first centuries BC and CE in light of what we know about the women of the much-better-documented 16th-18th centuries CE, as their legal statuses are comparable.

The chapter on “Kitchens, Toilets, and Baths,” is particularly interesting to me for how Roberts draws attention to the close colocation of food storage, cooking, and waste disposal. In houses from Pompeii and Herculaneum, the privy is often located near the hearth.

The final chapter discusses the death of the cities, and the people inside them. In this chapter are two large glossy pictures of dead people: one carbonised skull, and one preserved in clear resin. It is a very interesting discussion of the volcanic eruptions and how we know what we know about the cities because of the state of preservation and so forth, but do not read this chapter over dinner if you are disposed towards a tender stomach.

The tone of the volume is, on the whole, conversational and enthusiastically informative; the information is well-structured (though damn do I get bored easily hearing about August Mau and the Four Styles of Wall-Painting: I didn’t love that part of my coursework as an undergraduate and it turns out I still don’t find it fascinating) and the illustrations well-laid-out. The images are never crowded or difficult to follow, which is excellent in a book with this many of them.

If you’re interested in the history and archaeology of the ancient Roman world, or even just in how premodern cities worked? This is a damn fine volume to have on your shelves, I think.

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