The volcanic eruption of AD 79 destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. There were some ancient attempts at salvage, but the cities were irrecoverable. In the late eighteenth century, the kingdom of Naples began a more systematic uncovering of the Campanian towns. From that point, Pompeii became a symbol of Rome both in its decadence and destruction and in its civilization. As a consequence, each generation has made its own Pompeii. This major British Museum exhibition presented a fresh image of Pompeii and Herculaneum focusing on the everyday in the city. Visitors were pointed to the domestic and the ordinary and helped to think of a city peopled by others just like them. Yet, in that emphasis on the similar, the differences of Roman society and the Roman city were elided.

We initially encountered the famous cast of a dog in its death agonies, a cast created by pouring plaster into a void. The dog-shaped space was that of a guard dog protecting a house from unwelcome strangers, and the dog appeared elsewhere: the famous “cave canem” mosaic was pictured, and another chained and snarling hound mosaic warned off visitors. Getting past the dog, we met Eumachia, a distinguished woman of the city, and then we were in the streets. We went to a bar, saw the cartoonish frescoes of bar life, and then we entered the central part of the exhibition, a Roman house.

The exhibition led us through a house and its artifacts. The displays were an assemblage, but we were meant to think of the typicality of what we were seeing. There were wall paintings in glorious and vibrant colors. Kitchen-household gods appeared as snakes crossing the walls with a strange ferocity. The “bedroom” was decorated with erotica. The garden came alive with ancient garden frescoes, depicting vibrant Mediterranean foliage interlaced with theatrical masks (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Garden room, fresco from the Villa Arianna, Boscoreale (copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei).

Figure 1

Garden room, fresco from the Villa Arianna, Boscoreale (copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei).

It was the small finds that impressed: elegantly carved wooden tables, a baby’s crib, boxes, writing tablets, makeup pots, cooking pots, storage jars, earrings, the paraphernalia of life in vivid immediacy. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum sat within a long tradition of Pompeiana in which it is the parochial that appeals in contrast to the imperial grandeur of the capital. For early twentieth-century urban theorists, notably Lewis Mumford, it was the provincial city of Pompeii that was to be emulated, not the dangerous megalopolis of Rome with its streets filled with confusion, disorder, and death.

So what was the British Museum’s Pompeii for the twentieth-first century? It was a place where we could be at home. It was a place in which the distance of the past was dismissed in a shared humanity. The Roman fondness for ornamentation was paralleled by videos of an Italian middle-class family “showing off” their wealth with shiny things. It was a socially cohesive place in which “rich house owners,” “freeborn shopkeepers,” and “ex-slave craftsmen” lived alongside each other. In a city without obvious history, we were told that women were becoming prominent, and statues of Eumachia, who funded a major building on the forum of the city, and of the empress Livia marked the start of the exhibition. Indeed, you could have come away from the exhibition thinking that all classical portrait statues were of women. Even slaves had opportunities for “self-improvement.”

The water supply was abundant and “water for flushing toilets was essential for every household.” Pompeii emerged as a bourgeois society in which many of the visitors to the exhibition would have found themselves perfectly at home, though the more adventurous and prurient might have been attracted to bars, some of which “had a reputation for excessive drinking, gambling, and sexual immorality.”

All depictions of city life must be partial, but bourgeois Pompeii is more partial than most. There is almost no reference to public architecture and thus there is no politics, no empire, nor any economy. Eumachia’s statue stands next to that of the empress Livia, and the commentary fails to note that they looked the same: there is something more complex going on than liberalization of gender roles. Three social categories of women are advanced as representative—slaves, bar owners, and wealthy benefactors—but what about those in between? What about young girls married out of their households to much older husbands? In the bedroom, a faint image of a slave girl is seen attending a copulating couple, and the commentary notes that it was “not unknown for slaves to participate,” whether willing or not. The odd verbal choice and the double negative coyly invited us not to notice the sexual violence, power inequalities, and abusive relations at the heart of the Roman household. Roman elite men talked about their sexual activities as consensual, but do we take the abusers’ point of view? The “sexual immorality” of the tavern delicately and euphemistically alluded to prostitution. Romans sold slaves into prostitution as punishment, but they would work in brothels alongside free women; prostitution was hardly a voluntary choice for slave or free person. There was little “self-improvement” in the brothel.

And then there were the absent smells. Most people had inadequate water supplies. Fountains and cisterns provided water, which would be carried into houses. Human waste was emptied by buckets, often carried through houses, to be dumped into soil carts. Urine was collected in vats to be used in the cleaning of cloth. Pack animals moved goods through the city and turned the grain mills that made coarse flour. The city must have stunk, and the people would have been vulnerable to all the diseases common to the worst of slum cities.

Undoubtedly, the wealthy of Pompeii had lovely houses. But outside, there was another city on the street, kept back by the guard dogs. Life was difficult and dirty, and death sudden and pervasive. For the free poor (missing from the exhibition), the slaves, and women, hierarchic Roman society was violent, insecure, and very hard work. Before we are transported by nice bourgeois Pompeii, we might consider nasty Roman urbanism.

Leaving the exhibition, I wondered, yet again, why we are so committed to liking the Romans.

Accompanying Publication

Paul Roberts, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (London: British Museum Press, 2013), 320 pp., 400 illus. £25, ISBN 9780714122823