Pompeii: History’s Greatest Muse


Tales of the City

The past few years have seen a period of reflection about the way we live and how our cities can adapt and change. Perhaps some answers lie in the perfectly preserved streets of ancient Pompeii, says author and classicist Daisy Dunn...

On an autumn day in AD 79, a little girl from Herculaneum, near Pompeii, put on her precious charm bracelet.

She had been adding colourful gemstones and shells to it for some time and clearly took pride in her collection: prized fragments of Baltic amber, Alpine rock crystal and Egyptian ceramics. They were still with her when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The volcano had been dormant for so long – approximately 700 years – that the people living in its shadow assumed it was merely a mountain. The sudden appearance of an enormous grey cloud from the summit was the first sign of the imminent danger lurking beneath it.

Over the course of an afternoon and into the next morning, pumice and ash rained from the sky with increasing intensity, prompting many inhabitants to flee, snatching their most treasured belongings as they ran. While some took bags of money and daggers, others put on every piece of jewellery they owned until they could barely bend their fingers for the number of rings. Emulating the grown-ups, the girl at Herculaneum ensured she wore her bracelet as she escaped to the coast, where hundreds of people had gathered to seek safety. It was later discovered on the beach where she and so many others met their fate in the volcano’s vaporising pyroclastic flows, preserving something of the personality of a child whose name remains unknown.

As a result of being buried so quickly, the ancient cities of the Bay of Naples alongside people’s intimate, intricate ephemera were captured forever. What makes the eruption so fascinating – and one of our historical storytelling legends – are the rich tales wrapped up within it; the minutiae that brings each individual character alive.

And, peering beneath the archaeological layers we project something of our own fears and beliefs onto these relics of the past. Everything protected in the concretised layers of debris tells its own captivating story: be it a charred cradle of a baby, or a fragile bowl of eggs still intact. Objects like these may be humble, but when so much around them was destroyed, they appear miraculous. Precious poignant reminders of how people lived in these once-flourishing towns.

Of course, it’s not just physical objects that offer clues to the past, but handed-down folklore too – and Pompeii is a gift for storytellers. Prior to the eighth century BC, when the Greeks developed their alphabet and writing system, tales had been passed down by word of mouth and through song. The people of Pompeii had long been accustomed to writing – a surviving fresco from the town shows a man holding a scroll and his wife some wax tablets and a pen- like stylus with which to inscribe them – but the eruption of Vesuvius necessitated the sudden revival of orality. It is striking to remember that people caught up in the eruption were still moved to share their accounts of the horror unfolding, even as they attempted to flee.

The Roman senator Pliny the Younger, who was fortunate to survive the disaster when he was 17 years old, made a record of the fact that people were telling each other stories while the volcano was spewing. Some of these served to stir up further panic. At a loss to explain what was causing the sky to grow dark and the earth to boom, speculation was rife that the gods were taking vengeance on mankind, and that giants were now trampling the Italian landscape. While Pliny tried to read and make notes from a book as a distraction from fear, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, was calming his anxious friends by telling them more soothing tales. These were not hell-fires rising in the distance, but mere bonfires, he claimed.

Today, we recount our own stories of Pompeii based upon what’s in front of us and the pictures conjured up in our mind. The legacy of the Bay of Naples’ ancient cities lives on. Our interest in Pompeii speaks to our preoccupation with mortality. That such a highly developed civilisation – in many ways reminiscent of our own – could be obliterated overnight without warning reminds us of the importance of living in the present. It was the Romans, after all, who gave us the phrase carpe diem. The region may have suffered an extreme fate, but it has survived, perhaps most palpably of all in our imagination.

Daisy Dunn is the author of ‘In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny’ (HarperCollins)

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