Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – Review

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“Meanwhile, broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night.” So ran the description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a letter by Pliny the Younger to his friend, the future Roman historian Tacitus.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD is perhaps one of the most famous eruptions in history, not least because of its destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Yet, hidden in the suffering and horror of such a fateful event is a glimpse into Roman life, workings and dealings that we would otherwise lack.

The exhibition of ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at the British Museum showcased this insight into life in the towns in a novel way; upon entering, visitors were led through the narrow streets of Pompeii, complete with graffiti and political slogans. The exhibition then led you through the rooms of a typical Roman villa, where you were able to view artefacts according to the relevant part of house – garden, atrium, bedroom, kitchen, and so on. (Admittedly this didn’t give the best glimpse into how the average Roman lived, though was fascinating all the same.) Finally, you are led through a darkened section before having an opportunity to look at some of the plaster casts made by the hollows of the victims of Vesuvius.

The focus, then, was very much on the living in the towns and less about the destruction in the eruption – presumably to challenge the notion that the only notable things about Pompeii and Herculaneum were that they were destroyed. However, if the focus of the ‘death’ section of the exhibition was on the extraordinary manner of the people’s deaths, then the ‘life’ aspect found intrigue in the familiar and everyday objects that we might recognise. A display of carbonised figs, pomegranates, bread and onions may not have seemed so remarkable until one considered that these half-eaten foodstuffs were almost two millennia old. Likewise, a table, kitchen utensils and wall frescos all smacked of acquaintance and you could imagine yourself sat around with Pompeians or Herculaneans sharing a glass of wine, listening to stories about their lives and discussing the private lives of the Emperor. Etchings of animals and people on a wall fresco, attributed to a child, suggest a human side that vases and coins cannot. The individual brush strokes of paintings each retrace the painter’s movements so that we, two thousand years on, could copy the movements exactly.

I find it hard not to get a bit sentimental when talking about the ancient world, as my long-suffering friends will attest. However, my fondness for the classics concerned me on the way into the exhibition – I was afraid that my academic understanding of the period might hamper my ability to engage with the people behind the exhibition and (for a few hours) live as if in Ancient Rome. Gladly, I was wrong. The exhibition catered for those whose knowledge of the period was lacking whilst giving enough titbits to entice those who knew a bit more about the subject.

Sadly, however, despite the exhibition being wonderfully and thoughtfully put together, well described and designed, sensitively and educationally presented and – in short – a joy to experience, my time in the museum was not as good as I might have hoped for.

It may well have been my fault for going during the Easter Holidays or not anticipating the crowds that would be attracted by such an exposure but it was often hard to spend as much time as I wanted contemplating the artefacts for being jostled and pushed from the surrounding multitudes. One Spanish lady in particular seemed to be following me to each display before pushing me out of the way to get a better look herself. Accompanying such crowds inevitably also came a certain level of noise – whilst I don’t expect museums to be silent, reverential places I do expect a certain level of decorum around human remains. The solemnity of a set of plaster casts depicting the final moment of a family – their faces contorted in horror and anguish, their bodies recoiling in the suffocating heat and boiling ash – was rather disturbed by the pair of boys playing an excessively loud version of catch in the space behind me. So, too, was the personal feeling of a Roman villa shattered by the droves of continental schoolchildren whose understanding of their purpose in visiting the museum was that they had to glance at every piece as quickly as possible whilst moving en masse and talking over one another. Though I cannot in any way blame the negative experiences entailed on my visit to the exhibition, let my lesson be vicariously learned by anyone else wishing to visit – an early or late viewing is preferable if not essential.

The cacophony and irritations aside, the exhibition is a wonderful chance to see some of the treasures of the Pompeii excavations without having to go all the way to Naples, as well as being an opportunity to experience a side to Roman history that is often deprived of us when we discuss wars and emperors. How ironic it is, then, that the past should come alive in such a setting.