What Might Have Happened Upstairs

Mary Beard

One good thing about volcanic eruptions is that they rarely come without warning. Days or weeks of insistent rumbling, smoke pouring ever more energetically from the crater, followed by a few light drizzles of ash, are usually enough to ensure that all those with common sense, determination and some means of transport have fled to safety hours before the lava starts to flow or the pumice to rain. That was certainly the case in Pompeii in 79 AD. The ash incinerated the city in an instant, but several days of earth tremors and the appearance of a mushroom cloud above Vesuvius on the morning of the eruption had given a clear signal of what was to come. The notoriously ghoulish Pompeian ‘corpses’ (in fact, plaster casts of the dead made by the ingenious process of injecting plaster of Paris into the cavity left by the decomposing flesh) represent only a tiny minority of the town’s population: the procrastinators; the fatalists; the unlucky; those in the wrong place at the wrong time (the richly dressed woman, for example, found in the gladiatorial barracks, her mind presumably on other things); the poor with no means to escape; the slaves with no option; the dogs still chained up at the doors. The most famous victim – Pliny the Elder, insufferable polymath and author of a vast encyclopedia of natural history – lost his life in a foolhardy attempt to get a better view of the catastrophe. The rest – and that was the vast majority of the inhabitants – had taken their valuables and left.

Good news for the Pompeians, but disappointing for centuries of archaeologists, tourists, novelists, artists and film-makers, most of whom have longed to cast Pompeii as the Marie Céleste of the classical world, with half-eaten boiled eggs still on the table. True, we get occasional vignettes of Pompeian life – and death – that have an immediacy hardly paralleled elsewhere in Greece or Rome: the remains of a man who had climbed a tree to escape the debris but was overwhelmed all the same; the bread just put into the oven by a baker who must obstinately have continued to work right up to the end. Yet overall what survives is emphatically not a frozen moment in the life of a community going about its normal business, but the traces of a city abandoned and already half-stripped. Hence the striking sparsity of household portables and domestic bric-à-brac (which has often given the impression that the prevailing first-century aesthetic was some kind of Post-Modern minimalism): a lot of it had simply been carted off by its loving owners.

There are other reasons, too, why Pompeii should have given as much disappointment as pleasure to its visitors over the last 250 years; and other factors behind the frustration felt by so many tourists, from Goethe onwards, at its failure to make the Roman world come really alive. (‘The mummified city left us with a rather disagreeable impression,’ Goethe recalls in Italian Journey, though he was much more impressed with the display in the nearby museum.) Looting, for a start. No sooner had the volcanic debris settled than the locals returned to the site and started tunelling down to get anything worth salvaging – from silver cups to bronze statues and marble facings. Almost two millennia later this process merged into what is euphemistically known as the first ‘excavation’ of the site, when the best of what was left was hacked out and hauled off to the collection of the King of Naples – consigning the ‘second-rate’ finds to systematic destruction, as unworthy of the royal patron. Looting was a profitable business, no doubt, from the very beginning – but it was dangerous, too. Ironically, a number of the corpses we strive to identify as the tragic victims of the eruption must be those of the far less tragic looters, crushed and suffocated as their treacherous network of tunnels collapsed about them.

Even more to the point, Pompeii was in a state of considerable disrepair long before the volcano erupted. In 62 it had been close to the epicentre of a major earthquake, with maybe a second following a few years later. The worst-case scenario (itself much debated) is that the town was almost devastated and was only very slowly being restored at the time of the eruption. The old moneyed families had left (for their other houses elsewhere, presumably) and their place in the city hierarchy, it is argued, had been taken by the nouveaux riches – who were busy decking out their mansions in the brashest version of the latest style, but giving the restoration of public buildings predictably low priority. By 79 – no less than 17 years after the first earthquake – only one building in the forum had for certain been fully repaired. If this gloomy picture is correct, what we visit in these ruins is not so much the remnant of a town in its prime (albeit looted and half-abandoned), but something more like an ancient building site (with a good deal of squatter occupation). Not an implausible picture; it is just the impression you get when you visit the place today.

Despite all these obstacles, or maybe stimulated by them, there has been an enormous renaissance in Pompeian studies over the last twenty years. The new generation of archaeologists and historians understands the problems of ‘decoding’ Pompeii all too well, but refuses to accept the absurdity of writing off, as too damaged or atypical to be useful, what must still count as the best preserved Roman town we shall ever have – if you cannot understand Pompeii, what hope is there for Antioch or Alexandria, even the city of Rome itself? They have concentrated on three kinds of project: first, exploring carefully the history of interventions at the site, from looters to diggers, in the two thousand years since the eruption; second, looking beneath the final debris of 79 to the complex earlier history of the town (the site had been occupied for more than seven hundred years by the time of the eruption, and had seen Etruscan, Greek and Italic settlers before it became officially ‘Roman’); third and more broadly, attempting to get some better answers out of the ruins, by changing the historical questions put to them.

These approaches have scored some notable successes. Painstaking work in the archaeological archives has made it much easier to determine what the early excavators found and where exactly they found it. For the first time, and for a few select Pompeian houses, we can actually list what artefacts were discovered in which rooms: the essential first step to any discussion of the use of these rooms. In some cases (notably the so-called House of Menander – named for the portrait of the Greek dramatist found inside) this archival work has been part of a complete re-examination of what survives on the ground, recording and dating the remains more accurately than ever before, disentangling the different phases of occupation and intervention, from origins to final excavation. This should help to reveal, for example, what damage actually occurred in the earthquake of 62 and what kinds of renovation followed – as well as exposing the activities of looters, ancient and modern.

At the broader level, new questions about the social significance of domestic architecture have revolutionised the study of Pompeian (and so, by extension, Roman) housing. By carefully matching up surviving architecture with different styles of wall decoration, by thinking afresh about such simple problems as what you could actually see when you walked through the front door of a house, and by comparing what remains with Vitruvius’ first-century handbook On Architecture, archaeologists have put ‘domestic space’ back at the centre of Roman social and political history. The housing of the Roman élite, so this new orthodoxy goes, was not ‘private’, in the sense of hiding the inmates from public view, but a key extension of the owner’s political persona, a stage specifically designed to be a backdrop to his public role as patron and magistrate.

So far so good. But for all these steps forward in our understanding of the city, some of the most basic questions about its history and character remain unanswered, and have become, if anything, even more baffling. You would think that it would be relatively easy to estimate the size of the population. After all, 75 per cent of the area has been excavated fully enough to give reasonably accurate plans of all the houses uncovered; and there are no grounds for supposing that the remaining 25 per cent will spring any major surprises. Nonetheless, estimates vary from as few as 6400 to as many as 30,000 inhabitants. The reason for this discrepancy stems, in part, from a series of very different assumptions about population density. Was Pompeian living an elegantly spacious affair, or were even the rich packed in tight, two or more to a bedroom? And the problem is compounded by the almost total destruction of the upper storeys of the buildings in the town. Many houses still have stairs leading up to a first floor; but what that first floor contained (dormitories for squadrons of slaves, the master bedroom, a nursery, or just attic storage space?) we simply do not know. It is chastening to reflect that none of the new theories of Roman domestic space have made any serious suggestions as to what (might have) happened upstairs.

It is possible of course that the population was considerably depleted in 79 – particularly if the earthquake of 62 was as devastating as some archaeologists have believed, and if all those with property elsewhere had moved out. This earthquake has been at the centre of much recent work: how destructive was it, exactly? How far had the repair programme progressed? What had the effect on the town’s population been? Ironically, the more evidence that has been produced, the less clear the answers have become. Take the precise inventories that we now have of the finds made in some houses. Many of these show strikingly little differentiation room by room: in ‘dining rooms’, hoes and hatchets turned up next to wine jugs and serving dishes; elsewhere, carpentry tools were found next to cosmetic jars, silver spoons next to pruning hooks. This kind of distribution has been seized on as proof of the downgrading of the town in its final decades: that previously elegant houses had been turned over to multiple rented occupation as their owners moved out; that smart rooms, once markers of status and display, were now used to dump the garden tools. But other explanations are equally plausible. The pattern of finds could easily reflect the panic of those final hours before the eruption, as people hurriedly chose (or rejected) the possessions to load onto their carts. Or it might be a normal and characteristically Roman distribution of domestic utensils, earthquake or no earthquake; for one school of thought would reject the neat names and functions we now try to foist onto Roman domestic quarters (‘dining room’, ‘study’, ‘bedroom’), in favour of a much more ‘multi-functional’ approach to living space. In the Roman world hoes and hatchets might regularly have lived next to the wine servers.

Paul Zanker’s Pompeii: Public and Private Life springs from the centre of these debates. Based on three separate essays originally written between 1979 and 1993, and already published in Italian and German, it inevitably captures the changing world of Pompeian scholarship over that period (Zanker draws attention in his preface, notes and afterwords to all kinds of areas where new work would at least modify the conclusions he draws in the main body of the text). Overall, the book has an agreeably provisional, work-in-progress feel entirely appropriate to its subject.

Zanker, currently the director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome, is best known for his work on the ‘power of images’ in the early Roman Empire. Stressing the importance of architecture, sculpture and city planning in the politics of the Roman monarchy (particularly under Augustus), he has had an enormous influence on the practice of ancient history: there have been no serious post-Zanker accounts of the public face of Roman imperial power that have dared to neglect the role of visual images. In the central chapter of Pompeii, Zanker turns his attention to a cityscape on a much smaller scale, tracking the changing urban landscape of Pompeii through its last three hundred years or so: from the second century BC (as a prosperous Italian community, with strong links to the Greek world); through its formal incorporation into the Roman sphere in the first century (the grant of Roman citizenship was quickly followed by the forcible settlement of a battalion of Roman veterans in the town); to the final period up to the earthquake and beyond. Predictably, the earthquake damage (and subsequent repairs) prompts some of Zanker’s most significant second thoughts: his main text is confident that Pompeii’s civic centre had been left almost entirely unrestored, a decaying eyesore, in the years leading up to 79; his afterword trails the possibility that much of it had been renovated – so expensively, in fact, that its brand-new marble was one of the first targets of the post-eruption looters. The other substantial chapter (a version of an essay of 1979) focuses on domestic housing. Again, it puzzles (and re-puzzles in the notes) about quite how far ‘late’ (i.e. post-62) Pompeii was under the cultural and political sway of the brash nouveaux riches, uncomfortably reminiscent of Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyrica.

This is an extremely intelligent and observant book (for the most part intelligently translated, though the House of Apollo irritatingly appears throughout as the House of ‘Apolline’). For all its self-confessed provisionality, it is by far the best modern account of Pompeii as a historical city: indeed, the best account, more generally, of the visual and architectural impact of Roman power on the face of a medium-sized(?) Italian community in the late Republic and early Empire. Nevertheless, even Zanker occasionally clutches at some implausible historical straws. ‘The fields of learning and culture,’ he writes, in the course of a discussion of the cultural landscape of first-century AD Rome, ‘were politically neutral, and therefore safe’ – a statement which is not only demonstrably untrue, but a bizarre claim for Zanker to make, given that his major work was partly devoted to showing precisely the reverse. Even more extraordinarily, when discussing the large and luxurious houses built in the second century BC, he draws a contrast between the attitudes of Pompeians and those of metropolitan Romans: senators in Rome were caught up in a cultural bind, in which they were attracted by Greek-style luxury but at the same time strongly advocated self-restraint; the population of Pompeii, on the other hand, had no such inconvenient scruples and enjoyed luxury to the limit of their finances. What he really means is that in Rome vast expenditure on building went hand in hand with literary debates which we can still read: with no surviving literature from the hand of a Pompeian, we have no idea what the inhabitants of Pompeii thought, or debated, when they built their vast mansions – but there is no reason to conclude ex silentio that their attitudes were any less complex than those of the Romans.

The fact that a scholar of Zanker’s experience and distinction can resort to arguments like these raises the question, again, of why the evidence from Pompeii repeatedly proves so intractable. Ancient historians should certainly reflect on why they find it easier to write with confidence about a whole range of Roman cities that they ‘know’ much less well than Pompeii; and on whether they have become too comfortable with the paucity of evidence that they usually lament. The sheer bulk of what survives from Pompeii is, in some ways, an inconvenient surprise. Ultimately though, the problem comes down to the difficulty of interpreting ancient material remains where there are no literary sources to accompany them. Our longest ancient text that concerns the city is the younger Pliny’s highly embroidered account of his uncle’s fatal escapade. Apart from that, we have little more than a couple of brief mentions of the earthquake and a few lines on a riot in the Pompeian amphitheatre in 59 AD. The material evidence cannot speak for itself, nor give clear answers to the majority of interpretative questions we want to ask. Even when the artefactual remains are as rich as they are in Pompeii, they cannot speak for the people who once used them nor for their history over time; they can barely hint at the complex processes by which any particular object was finally uncovered by the trowel in any particular part of any particular ancient building. Most of us are less interested in the fact that a hoe was found in a dining-room than in what it was used for (not only hoeing, one would guess), in who put it there and why. And no amount of archaeology on its own, even on Pompeii’s lavish scale, can answer those questions.