“Everything is not as it may at first seem," historian Mary Beard says of today's Pompeii, the Roman city buried by volcanic ash in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius on Aug. 27, 79 CE.
The destruction of Pompeii is one of the best-remembered incidents from ancient history, not just for its drama, but also because an entire city "frozen in time" offers a unique glimpse into everyday life in the ancient world. Graffiti is still on the walls, bodies still in the postures of dying.
But, as Beard points out in her wonderfully comprehensive The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii has two histories, one that ended with the eruption, another that began with the excavation. Throughout the 19th century people dug, reconstructed, speculated and theorized and, as millions today do, toured the site.
Beard's book is, first of all, an excellent account of what the ruins of Pompeii can and cannot tell us. Archaeologists can now determine from preserved seeds and pollen exactly what plants grew in Pompeii's gardens. They can measure the plaque on the victims' teeth. Yet we cannot be sure what the upstairs rooms of houses were used for, or for certain where people slept.
Nor can we assume that objects were in their ordinary locations. Rather than a city frozen in time, Pompeii was, Beard says, a city in flight — evidenced by the comparatively few bodies found. Especially misleading is the "austere modernist aesthetic, uncluttered, even uncomfortably empty," of reconstructed homes. Furniture and doors were burned away, leaving only bone hinges, bronze fittings and outlines of furnishings.
Early visitors entered Pompeii through its cemeteries, which by Roman custom were outside the city. Victorian visitors were entering a city of the dead. We today enter through a Visitor Center — but the distinction goes beyond commercialism. For Beard, drawing on the latest archaeological findings, Pompeii is a living city.
David Walton is a writer in Pittsburgh.