Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard

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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: An in-depth investigation of all things Pompeii. This small, rather unremarkable (pre-event) Italian town is gone over by Beard with the proverbial fine tooth comb; how the local people lived, loved, worked and played are examined and also debated here in this book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846684715

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The introduction does not spare the reader of the horror of a volcanic (Vesuvius) eruption in the year 79 CE. As the local residents literally ran for their lives clutching what they could easily carry ... a deadly, burning combination of gases, volcanic debris and molten rock travelling at huge speed ... leaves the reader with an horrific mental image. All that last minute panicking was in vain. No one could survive such an onslaught. Nature at her very worst indeed.

Hundreds of bodies were found later, some of whom were pathetically still holding on to their belongings. A frozen moment in historical time. Each and every one of the stories told is tragic, a life lost but two in particular pulled at my heartstrings. The images are so evocative. There was a pregnant woman, with her almost full-term child inside her womb and the guard dog unable to run as it was tethered to a post. We cannot begin to imagine the horror of it all. Death would have been extremely painful.

Like the doomed Titanic to a certain extent, we are still fascinated and horrified in equal measure. Beard puts on her professional hat and shares her findings with her readers in a confident but nevertheless warm fashion. The juxtaposition of her modern language and terminology adds to the telling of the story of Pompeii. She is able to fill out sketchy details from that fateful day and give us a rounded picture of life way back then. She is also not afraid to take on some of the myths surrounding the whole Pompeii episode - and dispel them with her own evidence.

For example, many of us, myself included, get the impression that the local Pompeii people had only precious nano-seconds in which to react, try to save themselves. Wrong, according to Beard. The residents had hours, perhaps even the luxury of several days of warning to plan their escape route. Small tremors were making their presence well and truly felt. And many sensible people did the sensible thing - and left town. We know this because over a thousand bodies have since been discovered. Beard reminds us several times that around a quarter of the town of Pompeii is still unexcavated. And up pops another myth which is quickly dispelled by no-nonsense Beard. Not all of the bones found were the victims of the earthquake. Looters returned after the event, to scavenge for what they could find in amongst the rubble. It must have been dangerous work. And these looters met their own deaths - for the sake perhaps of a nice vase or a pitcher. You can imagine the scene. Bits of buildings hanging off and what have you, ready for collapse. Loot at your peril was the poignant message.

With chapter headings such as House And Home, Who Ran The City and Earning A Living Beard attempts to bring this area of southern Italy back to life, if you like, for her readers. But in a sensitive manner. The book is studded with many black and white illustrations and also some colour plates to give our lay imaginations a bit of a boost. The rich colours of some of the residential homes are truly stunning.

And it wouldn't be an historical study without some healthy debate amongst historians, would it? But what is not up for debate, according to Beard, is that Pompeii was a thriving community in many ways. Okay, it wasn't up there with its classier neighbour Rome albeit relations between the two were good and respectful. This is a comprehensive historical reading journey through Pompeii. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

We can also recommend The Parthenon by Mary Beard.

Booklists.jpg Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.
Buy Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard at Amazon.com.


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