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Ancient Rome Comes to London – Catch It While You Can

August 9, 2013

There is nowhere like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard, one of the subjects of my last post, who has done much in recent years to educate us about the two Roman towns buried under a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in AD 79, would most likely agree. Even if you are only vaguely interested in ancient history, a visit to the excavations on the bay of Naples is a must.

But this summer, if you’re not heading for Naples, you can still take a trip to the British Museum.

There you will find the Pompeii and Herculaneum Exhibition, as good an introduction to the Roman world as you are ever likely to find. What’s more, many of the finest artefacts recovered from the ash that buried them are not to be found in their normal home – the Naples National  Archaeological Museum. That’s because they’re in London, along with frescoes, mosaics, body casts and other features that are normally spread out between the two excavation sites and the museum, which is some way away in central Naples.

I’ve visited the sites several times, because as a classicist by education and a lifelong student of Roman history I can’t get enough of them.

Of course in a two-hour wander through the exhibition in the British Museum, you don’t get a feeling for scale. You’re not walking down ancient streets with Vesuvius glowering on the distant horizon. But you do get a vivid sense of the dolce vita that made these towns popular holiday destinations for the rich and the powerful who needed to get away from the heaving metropolis of Rome, two hundred kilometres to the north.

Most of the exhibits are not new to me. I’ve seen them in situ or in the Naples museum. Yet it’s a delight to find them all in one place, bound up with a narrative that takes you from an anatomy of the fatal eruption through various aspects of Roman life to the sudden and devastating end of life. Jewellery, sculptures, furniture, 3D animations of a luxurious town house and elegant paintings of gardens, family activities, commerce and cookery.

Even if you’re not interested in ancient history. the exhibition is worth a visit for another reason.

It’s not just that you can look through a window into a civilisation where the familiar jostles with the alien. The volcanic event has bequeathed us the finest illustration – anywhere – of what life was like before the industrial revolution. No internet, smart phones, no electricity. No mass production, cars or global transportation systems. What’s more, no weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence of any event that was likely to cause mass extinction unless you include the earthquakes that frequently afflict the Italian peninsula. Nobody saw Vesuvius coming – it had not erupted in living memory or even folk memory.

These days we face all manner of threats that could derail human life, or at least degrade it such that we, too could be returned to a pre-industrial age. There are still parts of the world where people live without modern technology and others where conflict has returned them “to the stone age”.

But most of us have never had to live without the technology we take for granted. We know all about climate change, conflict and natural disasters. We see the consequences of wars, tsunamis and hurricanes on TV. Yet we find it hard to accept in our hearts that that our lives  – rather than those of unfortunates elsewhere on the plant – could change or end suddenly. We’ve become used to being scared in the comfort of our living rooms.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were no gardens of Eden. They were societies powered by slave labour. Life expectancy was far shorter than we enjoy today. Medical knowledge was crude, and the skeletons recovered show evidence of a number of chronic conditions for which there was no cure. Yet there was a form of consensual local politics, and plenty of scope for upward mobility – most of the citizens of Pompeii were former slaves. The population across the social spectrum lived on a rich diet of sea food, fruit and vegetables. Though life for the slaves in the surrounding agricultural land may have been grim and short, many of the coastal town dwellers had it pretty good by the standards of the time.

if you want to imagine a world free of industrial technology, you have a number of options. You could watch the Mad Max films depicting a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You could visit a village in the Andaman Islands or the Brazilian rain forest. Or you could spend a couple of hours in the British Museum. Better still, you could make the effort to visit the sites themselves.

So why should we should peer through this unique window into a sophisticated ancient society? Because our past could be our future.

But don’t wait too long. The British Museum Exhibition closes on September 29th. You can book tickets online, or take your chance that you can pick up some of the five hundred released every day. It’s wildly popular, so be aware that you’ll have to wait for crowds around the most popular exhibits to clear.

Back in the bay of Naples, there is increasing concern that Vesuvius will erupt again, perhaps in our lifetimes. We might then witness death and destruction on a far wider scale than afflicted the ancient towns. Naples, a city of a million inhabitants, could be wiped out. Pompeii and Herculaneum could be reburied under metres of volcanic ash.

Hopefully the worst will not happen any time soon. Meanwhile, one fascinating aspect of Pompeii and Herculaneum is that large areas have not yet been excavated. In the case of Herculaneum, one third of the town still lies beneath the modern village of Ercolano. Efforts to excavate more of Pompeii have been inhibited by lack of funding. The cash-strapped Italian state has determined that such limited resources as are available should be best spent preserving what is already over ground rather than exposing more of the remains to the elements. That has to be sensible, especially as the frescos are already fading and several buildings have collapsed over the past decade.

Another reason for leaving what remains unexcavated is that future exploration will avoid the destruction caused when the ruins were first discovered in the eighteenth century – much the same reason that the Chinese cite for not excavating the burial chamber of the emperor Qin Shi Huang that lies in the midst of his terracotta legions. Many of those who first stumbled on the Italian sites were little more than treasure hunters, who ruined as much as they recovered.

While I accept that I may never live to see what still lies buried, there’s still a side of me that longs to know what is yet to be discovered. I pray for an oligarch or an internet billionaire to come forward and spend a piece of their fortune on uncovering all or part of what remains. They could do a deal with the government to offer generous compensation to those living above the sites, and to endow a foundation with sufficient funding to preserve and maintain the newly uncovered areas.

Also the chances are that there are villas and hamlets beneath open ground throughout the area that we still know nothing about. A systematic geophysical survey of the whole area covered by the ash could reveal new treasures without disturbing the lives of the people of Ercolano.

If I had a few spare billions, I’d be the first to beat a path to Italy’s door. In my dreams, unfortunately. But are there not philanthropists among the current gang of super-wealthy demi-gods who might fancy their own slice of eternal renown through associating themselves with such a project? Well, perhaps not eternal, but at least until the next eruption comes along.

I live in hope.

From → Education, History, UK

  1. The graffiti is pretty neat, too.

    • You’re right – forgot to mention them. The trolls of the ancient world. More on this in my next post!

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