Pompeii: The Living City
by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £20, pp386
As the authors observe, a visit to Pompeii is often disappointing. Wear and tear, sunshine and theft have destroyed the illusion of a miraculously preserved lost world which the accounts of its first discoverers convey so strongly. This book attempts to restore meaning to the dusty ruins, with notable success. The authors are an archaeologist/historian and a dramatist: Laurence contributes up-to-date research, while Butterworth puts human flesh on dry bones.
This is not a snapshot of the city in the year of its destruction. The story begins 25 years before that, at the accession of the emperor Nero in AD54. The authors don't account for this decision in any way, though there are obvious good reasons for it: on the local level, selected individuals can be shown moving from youth to mature achievement over 25 years, via Pompeii's thousands of graffiti, and it is also useful to be reminded that the city had suffered a cataclysmic earthquake in 62 (it was still under reconstruction when it was finally destroyed).
In the Roman world more generally, this was a period which started with a certain optimism, but was racked by successive calamities - the Great Fire of Rome in AD64 was a disaster beside which the eruption of Vesuvius was merely a local tragedy. It was also a period in which a playboy emperor and a clique of irresponsible billionaires pushed the Roman economy into free fall, from which it was only retrieved by the sack of Jerusalem and a vast injection of gold and silver bullion, the temple treasure.
Though the Bay of Naples was one of the areas of Italy where rich people liked to live, and Pompeiian local worthies included relatives of both Nero and his empress, the city was not all that wealthy. The region's fertile volcanic soil was amazingly productive but not much cash stuck to the hands of the citizenry. Fewer than one in 10 Pompeiian women's bodies was found with any jewellery. The region's wealth was drained to support the extravagances of a privileged few.