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The Spirit of ’79

By (October 1, 2013) 4 Comments

Bad things happened in the ancient world, and—from the Renaissance and well into the nineteenth century—the point of studying history was to figure out how to avoid them. History was considered the wellspring of practical political knowledge. Machiavelli wanted to use classical models to restore “the works of greatest virtue which historians indicate have been accomplished by ancient Kingdoms and Republics.” The American Constitutional Convention referred to the fall of the Roman Republic with obsessive frequency, in the hope that retracing the steps that led to the Empire could teach them how to form a state impervious to the rise of a monarch. Montesquieu and Gibbon both spent their lives worrying about what caused the fall of the Empire, at least in part so that they could learn how to stop it from happening again.

But what do you then make of the destruction of Pompeii, buried under a volcanic explosion in the year 79? There is a difference here. You cannot avert a volcano. History will not help you. The only answers lie in descrying the Earth’s seismic whims. My own introduction to Pompeii came in elementary school, through a science textbook chapter on volcanoes. At its end, a vividly worded homework prompt encouraged us to imagine that “the long-dormant volcano at the edge of your town suddenly erupts in a shower of fire, burying it in layers of rock and ash! What will future archaeologists make of the objects in your house when they dig it up in 1,600 years?” (I am paraphrasing, but not much.) I spent much of the next year imagining that a volcano might actually erupt in the middle of my rural Michigan hometown.

But once you move past the fact of the eruption, Pompeii is less about terror than it is about workaday reality. Fear of Pompeii entails a sense that everything normal and boring is worth loving precisely because it might be destroyed at any moment without warning: the site is interesting not for its exceptionality, but because it is the best-preserved evidence for the experience of daily life in the glory days of the Roman Empire. And this contrast between, on one hand, the numbingly, lovably ordinary lives we live from day to day and, on the other, the extraordinary, unforeseen event that threatens to destroy them—this contrast provides the two poles around which the story of Pompeii’s interpretation has unfolded through the years.

The British Museum’s new exhibit on “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” —the first in Britain in four decades, and possibly the most comprehensive English-language exhibit on the site ever—is run by grown-ups, for grown-ups. This is kind of a relief, because so much History Channel-type commentary on Pompeii fails to rise above the level of the children’s books on display in the gift shop. From such sources, people know that Pompeii was completely buried by a volcanic eruption that froze Roman life until its excavation thousands of years later. They have seen the plaster casts of all the townspeople buried by the eruption that they never saw coming, fetally curled in horror.

Except little of that is true, as the curatorial text, videos, and accompanying book of the show (by Paul Roberts, the museum’s head curator of Roman collections) make clear. You learn that much of Pompeii was still visible after the eruption, which only buried the town to a depth of 12 feet or so. (Herculaneum, a neighboring village, was interred far deeper and preserved differently.) Consequently, looters and homeowners kept braving the wreckage to save what they could, and all of the buildings lack their upper floors. The vicinity of the town was known throughout the Middle Ages as “La Cività,” suggesting that people always knew there was something there. “Rediscovery” began when a Renaissance aqueduct was dug under Pompeii in the 1590s, and accelerated when a well-digger ran into Herculaneum in 1710. Moreover, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli began making plaster casts of the cavities where bodies had decayed in 1861—but they were curled due to the contraction of corpses’ tendons under extreme heat, not from the distress of the living. And finally, the warning signs of something bad (even if no one knew Vesuvius was a volcano) began well in advance of the last deadly surges of hot gas down the volcano’s slopes, and consequently, only a fraction of the populace remained in the town: at least two-thirds had already fled.

The more romantic, imaginative practices of 18th- and 19th-century excavators still discolor popular conceptions of Pompeii. The first couple centuries of research were enthralled the idea that the eruption mattered mainly because it preserved pieces of what was “important” in the Roman Empire—the high-status world of emperors, senators, and venal aristocrats that the classically-educated elite of that time would have known as well as their own nations’ histories, if not better. They were fond of attributing deep significance to whatever they might come across—every painting a masterpiece, every mansion an imperial home. And where they could not do so, they created drama. They gave individual houses names like “The House of the Fatal Loves” or “The House of the Tragic Poet,” usually based on slim evidence (a single fresco or some dropped coins). One anecdote reports that tour guides would re-bury uncovered artifacts in half-cleared rooms so that they could be “found” during the visits of important aristocrats.

Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a popular novelist of the Victorian period, captured the then prevailing attitude towards Pompeii in the preface to his 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii: “[I]t is not only the ordinary habits of life, the feasts and the forum, the baths and the amphitheatre, the common-place routine of the classic luxury, which we recall the past to behold;—equally important, and more deeply interesting, are the passions, the crimes, the misfortunes, and reverses that might have chanced to the shades we thus summon to life! We understand any epoch of the world but ill if we do not examine its romance.” His novel was inspired in turn by a vibrantly overwrought history canvas by the Russian painter Karl Briullov, in which many half-naked Pompeians dodge marble statues felled by lava and, oddly, lightning.

KarlBrullovTheLastDayofPompeii(1830 - 1833)Karl Brullov, The Last Day of Pompeii(1830 – 1833)
In contrast with that cavalier interest in fine artifacts and fixation on catastrophe, much of what is new in Pompeian studies comes from paying closer attention to materials that once would have gone overlooked. As opposed to Pompeii, where wood rotted under layers of pumice, in the neighboring town of Herculaneum, high temperatures and fine ash turned plant matter to charcoal. It has therefore yielded far more than Pompeii by way of furniture and interiors, with the result that some of its most highly valued objects were also once the most workaday: a three-legged wooden stool, an inlaid table, a baby’s cradle. A recently discovered fragment of wooden ceiling material allows us to reimagine Roman interior design. One of the exhibit’s more subtly astonishing displays consists of carbonized Herculanean foodstuffs. But beyond merely identifying them as figs, chickpeas, onions, and nuts (as the placard in front of them does), further analysis has made it possible to trace their varieties and geographical origins—and by implication, information about Mediterranean trading and commerce.

The category of the everyday can also encompass some things that seem very alien, though, in ways that the Victorians had entirely different reasons to spurn]—the Roman affection for penises among them. A layperson could only conclude from the British Museum’s exhibit that the Romans were obsessed; by all professional accounts, this assessment is accurate. To say “phallus” seems prudish. The variety of penises ranges from dull literality to bewildering whimsy. An oil lamp carved in the shape of an arm-pumping satyr with an erection is perhaps better described as an erection that happens to have a satyr attached. There is a wind chime in the shape of a gryphon, except instead of an eagle’s body and head, the bulk of the gryphon is a giant penis—which, in turn, has its own penis, and an additional penis as a tail. Figures of penises are etched on surfaces and even fixed in mosaic as what seems to be a kind of good-luck charm. It is tempting to allay this with a few platitudes about how the past is a different country and the mores of cultures vary—but surely a Roman visiting modern America would come away thinking that our culture is bizarrely obsessed with breasts.

Pan&GoatPeniform windchimes notwithstanding, the exhibit keeps trying to close the historical gap between us and the Romans. (The souvenirs in the gift shop all aim for this effect, however hackneyed the result may be—replica Roman kettles, anyone?) Victorian attempts to awe and wow have been replaced by a search for transhistorical fellow-feeling. That isn’t to say that there aren’t awe-inspiring objects, of course: a mosaic of diverse sea-creatures in granular detail, keenly lifelike twin statues of deer beset by hounds, and a weird, transgressive sculpture of the satyr god Pan mating with a goat. But the interest in traditional fine-art objects is balanced by the exhibit’s fascination with objects like personalized colanders. A short film at the beginning of the gallery keeps flashing between Pompeian relics and their equivalents in a 21st-century Neapolitan household, as if to shout, “The Romans were so ordinary! They had to wash their vegetables too! They had janitors! They put on makeup!”

The floor plan of the exhibit is itself laid out in general imitation of the House of the Tragic Poet, so that museum-goers proceed from the “street” into an “atrium” with “bedrooms” branching off, and a “garden” in the back—with appropriate artifacts displayed in each. The conceit is that you are actually walking through something like an ordinary Roman house of the late first century, and seeing things not dissimilar to what you would see if you visited Pompeii itself.

But you are not seeing what you would in Pompeii. In some sense, you’re actually seeing more, because so many of the objects that have been discovered at Pompeii are no longer in situ, but instead in the storage spaces of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei (modern Italian law requires that new finds stay on-site), or loaned out to off-site exhibitions like this one. As a consequence, there are two separate Pompeiis. One one hand, there is the original site on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, scrutinized by archaeologists and accessible to tourists only in part. On the other hand, there is a second Pompeii, completely abstracted from its original walls and geography, comprising the wealth of art, artifacts, casts, and other objects retrieved from the site. This second, virtual Pompeii could conceivably be reassembled at will at any other place in the world—and this simulation is rebuilt every time a new exhibition is organized or a traveling show materializes in a new city. Moreover, these virtual Pompeiis promise to give the layperson a better, more comprehensive understanding of the daily material culture of Roman Italy in the first century than the emptied remains of the buildings on the original site. The two Pompeiis take on entirely different functions. One is the source itself, with the wealth of raw and unprocessed information that requires specialist knowledge and tools to decipher. The other evokes the adornments and “look” of ancient Pompeii for the non-specialist, and allows for a lavish recreation of an everyday Roman interior with all its trappings in a way that the original site does not.

This is a matter of archaeological necessity: many of the objects recovered from Pompeii would deteriorate if left exactly where they were found once recovered. Any archaeologist working on the site will muse that the worst thing that ever happened to it, from a preservationist’s perspective, was its rediscovery. The exhibit incorporates three towering wall-sized trompe-l’oeil frescoes from a Pompeian garden; it does not note, however, that such frescoes were probably only intended to last a couple decades at most before being repainted. It’s astonishing that they’ve lasted nearly two millennia, and without further preservation, it’s unlikely that they will survive the current century. The worst thing that could happen to them would be to be left in place at Pompeii—exposed to the open air, direct sunlight, and the hordes of tourists who visit every year.

And this illustrates something important about the pace of work on Pompeii and Herculaneum: work proceeds at a rate so deliberately slow that it’s better measured in generations than years. People often assume that archaeologists working on the sites are trying to excavate the towns as quickly and completely as possible so that they can see—and present—the entire site. But even if they could, they wouldn’t want to. About a third of Pompeii remains unexcavated. When I asked Evan Proudfoot, an Oxford graduate student who works on the site, what the ideal pace of excavation would be for the rest of the town, he answered, unblinking, “About a house per generation.” There are two reasons for this: one practical, the other philosophical.

The practical reason is that not only would such an undertaking drastically accelerate the sites’ deterioration—it would also drench the researchers in information that they have neither the staff nor funding nor technology to adequately interpret. As the New York Times recently reported, and everyone who works on the towns will tell you, the site has been underfunded since the end of the Second World War, and the Italian government is no source of financial stability. Storage facilities for artifacts are already crowded and limited. Moreover, carelessly hasty excavation leads to irreversible information losses. If someone does not record the relative position of objects as they are recovered, or risks breaking items in the process of retrieving them, or discards as worthless common objects that later theories render useful (all of which happened with much of the site in its early centuries), then those data simply disappear.

Finally, theoretical and technological innovation makes it possible to retrieve and preserve all kinds of information in ways and to an extent that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago; consequently, it’s impossible to tell how much more information a fresh house, street, or city block might be able to yield twenty years hence. Only very recent archaeological interest has focused on interpreting Pompeii’s early history as an Italic rather than Roman town. The hollows left by the bodies of the dead can now be cast with clear resin rather than plaster, permitting analysis of the skeleton inside and the recovery of any jewelery. (The process is expensive; its only example to date, a woman in her early 30s, is in the exhibit.) Archaeobotanical analysis of carbonized plant matter would have sounded implausible, if not unthinkable, in 1950. One Danish team working at the site now employs camera-equipped aerial drones and a three-dimensional laser scanner to develop perfect records of the placement of every wall and structure in a building. It is easy to say that these advanced techniques are good enough to document the entire site—but archaeologists a half-century ago might have thought the same thing about these techniques. The attitude governing most contemporary excavations is that, at least in concept, you should scrutinize what you already have as deeply as possible before you dig any deeper.

pompeiiexcavationThe philosophical reason for not excavating all of Pompeii and Herculaneum as soon as time and money will allow is a bit more abstract, and tells you something about the unusual scale of time on which classicists and classical archaeologists are prone to think. The argument progresses something like this: pumice and ash kept the towns safe from the depredations of time for sixteen or seventeen centuries. In the three centuries since concerted excavations began, two centuries failed to proceed as carefully as seems desirable in hindsight, and one saw the site nearly fall victim to a destruction the Romans could never have imagined—wartime bombing. In light of these hazards, a contemporary antiquarian’s responsibility is not merely to the past, or to our present understanding of it. It is also to the future.

The number of people involved in mounting an exhibit like this is staggering. The acknowledgements in the exhibition catalogue take up two coffee-table-sized pages in small type; the bibliography fills three. Financing such a production demands huge funds (the show’s sole sponsor is Goldman Sachs), and acquisitions required the cooperation of three soprintendenze archeologiche and two other museums. The résumés of archaeologists and curators look somewhat different from those of other scholars, especially in the humanities: years or even decades of work might go into the production of a single article, or mounting even a small exhibition For the most part, this work is done by people with no aspiration to recognition beyond their immediate professional community; it is the gritty, somewhat thankless, trench-level line position in the generation of knowledge.

In an act almost as culturally execrable as the bombing of Dresden, the Allies bombed Pompeii in 1943 based on the mistaken belief that German artillery pieces were encamped there, thereby destroying several houses, the contents of the on-site museum, and other major parts of the city: the Large Theatre and the Forum, as they stand now, are mainly post-war reconstructions. The memory of damage to sites like Pompeii helped make the case after the war for UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites; its convention noted, “[I]n view of the magnitude and gravity of the new dangers threatening them, it is incumbent on the international community as a whole to participate in the protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value.” (Still, Pompeii wasn’t actually placed on the list until 1997, twenty years after its inception.)

If you are going to devote your life to the preservation of a human treasure, then you have to be impartial in your view of who you are preserving it for; people to come have just as much a claim on the past as people who are now. Custody of the sites involves thinking of the current moment as just one slice of a much longer human continuity, and any given generation as a caretaker of the classical heritage for as many generations to come as possible. There is something hieratic to this conception of one’s work that few vocations share—the idea of a caretaker caste devoting itself to the survival of a site and a body of knowledge that dwarfs any individual life.

It was announced last year that Paul Anderson is making a movie about the destruction of Pompeii—slated for 2014 and wittily titled Pompeii—which will feature Kiefer Sutherland and Emily Browning and lots of computer-generated lava. I’m sure that, from the studio’s perspective, it looked great: a combination of the sandaled, armored world of Gladiator and the pyrotechnic special effects of Transformers. But like so many of the superhero and sci-fi movies of the past decade (all the Batmans, The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield, the recent Star Trek movie), the phantom that it will conjure for its audience—perhaps gratuitously—is that of 9/11. Ashen-faced Romans will stagger out onto streets and collapse from noxious fumes. Buildings will crash to the ground. The screenplay will do its best to make us admire acts of heroism. We’ll witness the on-screen destruction of one more city as a surrogate for New York or New Orleans or Boston, however tenuous the metaphor may be, uncertain whether this helps exorcise collective demons, or why directors think it does.

It’s better to lean towards the New Orleans side of the comparison. Fear of Pompeii suggests a world in which we most fear our own helplessness in the face of random, overpowering destruction. There is no moral order to things, and neither reason nor virtue will save us. On any given day, with minimal warning, your town or city might be struck by a hurricane or tornado, bomb or airplane, and there is nothing that you could have done to avoid it. We are afraid that the universe is arbitrary and irrational and that there is no significance to our own deaths after all.

But Pompeii also shows us that significance can be salvaged even when it might seem lost for good. To keep up civilization is a way of vindicating those who came before. Because we so frequently celebrate unprecedented invention nowadays, we shudder at the idea that a dark age happens—perhaps unavoidably—every now and then. In the face of that fear, the form our courage takes is remembering what we’re most afraid of losing, which is not just the world-historical, but the inconspicuous pieces of everyday life: the anonymous woman in the street, the chairs, the colanders, the fruit on the table.

Spencer Lenfield is a Rhodes Scholar currently studying classics at Oxford University. He blogs at loosesignatures.blogspot.com.


  • Ryan Brown says:

    Great work here, Spencer. I enjoyed not only the in-depth look provided by the British Museum, but your take on why “we” feel the need to inappropriately create some sort of mystical background for what was truly an average city in Roman times. I also appreciate the pre-film analysis of a Hollywood big budget production. Again-very well done. Thanks for the insight.

    Ryan Brown

  • Barsoomian says:

    Hate to be p(r)icky about this, but far as I know

    “phallus” refers to the image or representation of the bodily part called the penis, i.e.the male anatomical extensión, an object made of skin, tissue, etc. but not oven-baked clay.

    True, in common usuage, phallus is an ever so slightly more genteel way of not saying “penis” but in this instance it seems to me the distinction matters when your writer talks about Romans’ “affection for penises” — a subject, perhaps, requiring further discussion.

  • shaheed says:

    well the reason why the pompi was destroyed, though i have not done full research but could figure out after going throgh 9th para “The category of the everyday can also encompass some things that seem very alien, though, in ways that the Victorians had entirely different reasons to spurn]—the Roman affection for penises among them….”

    So they have change thier lust into religeous teachings and even they have given lustful names to the GOD………..

    It is better not to compare their bad attitudes with modern bad attitude in the name of rationale but we should learn lesson from them, not to indulge in in-human act and enrage GOD’s anger….


  • Vanina says:

    Great article, Spencer! Many thanks for publishing it; I’ve already shared it at FB.

    It’s been a real pleasure to read something that expresses so exquisite many similarities with my own point of view, based on observation and utter reflection and consideration, related to a subject which fascinated me for the same reasons I’ve read here. The same reasons I have when visiting a cemetery for hours (I’m afraid I don’t have the resources to visit any archeological site, so instead…): reading the older epitaphs, watching the works of art that the relatives of a certain person left for him/her many years ago… all things to secure their memory for future generations. That is to say: “She/He was here! Lived! And did all this things, and was loved, and will be remembered”. Ordinary, everyday things take huge importance: “(…) the anonymous woman in the street, the chairs, the colanders, the fruit on the table”, things that we wouldn’t even noticed before, but transform into almost mystic events at the doors of death.

    On the other hand, the thousand of specialist working on the field, reconstructing our collective history, with no fireworks, plaques or newspaper’s covers, are the everyday proof of our best as humans. I also dare to establish another parallelism, which also proves our worst: these great people against Hollywood stars. The first ones, trying to get funds from wherever, funds to help with their almost anonymous work of enormous importance for us all, present and future generations; and the second ones… well, no much to say. Though I like good movies, but I think it’s as Socrates sort of said almost 2.500 years ago, that he should enjoy the benefits of the laureate sportsmen with much more reason than them.

    Well, it’s a strange world as well as our strange specie ; ) Maybe all is random and cruel. But some scientists have the theory that the fundamental compound of our Universe is intention. So, maybe is not so random after all. Who knows?

    Meanwhile, we’re worldwide searchers  and we’ll continue our search, no matter the cruelty or randomness, wouldn’t we?

    Kindly receive my very best regards from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Oh! And Happy New Year!!

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