Under the Volcano

M. Larvey
A painting in the Chaste Lovers bakery, Pompeii; from Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius. ‘At first sight an elegant scene,’ Beard writes, ‘with comfortable cushions and drapes, and glass vessels set out neatly on the table. But the woman behind is

The Mediterranean Sea is an area subject both to earthquakes and to volcanic eruptions. Usually of no great significance, they are occasionally shattering. In the year 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted to terrific effect, and with a force reckoned as equal to that of many atomic bombs. There had been warning tremors, and the more prudent inhabitants had fled from the populous towns and the luxurious villas that thronged the area, on the delightful and ever popular Bay of Naples.

Some people, of course, had stubbornly stayed in their homes and hoped for the best. We can imagine them saying, “Oh, come on: it won’t be any worse than all those other times, when people got alarmed and ran for the hills, and then, after all the fuss, nothing much came of it: they trooped back home again, looking pretty silly. And what about looters? If we all clear out, the thieves will simply help themselves.” The dead bodies of some of those people—too old, or too lazy, or too sanguine to flee—survive in considerable numbers. Encrusted in volcanic dust and mud, which set hard and gave them an unwanted immortality, they are specimens in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, one of the great museums of the world.

The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were buried beneath the lava, preserve a picture of the ancient city that is unique, including its houses, possessions, and works of art, a picture that is ably presented by Mary Beard in her book The Fires of Vesuvius. It must be said at once that they do not give us everything that we might, ideally, have wanted. These were provincial towns. We are not dealing with Athens or Rome, or even with the great neighboring city of Neapolis—revealingly, a Greek name, meaning Newtown: whence modern Napoli, which in English we call Naples.

The town of Pompeii existed already in the archaic period. Traces survive from the seventh, eighth, ninth centuries BC. People have always wanted to live on the delicious Bay of Naples. Greek settlers, Etruscans, Oscans, Campanians, all occupied attractive sites and left evidence of their settlements. When Rome conquered and unified Italy, wealthy Romans flocked there; we find straitlaced or pessimistic commentators complaining that slackers, even among members of the Senate, preferred the luxurious half-Hellenized lifestyle of that seductive area—“more or less the ancient equivalent of St Tropez,” as Beard calls it—rather than the generally hard-faced and censorious atmosphere, and the dignified but less comfortable dress, of Rome, the conqueror of the world. Such complaints were generally ineffectual, and many upper-class Romans continued to prefer the softer and…

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