- Paperback: 162 pages
- Publisher: Phoenix Press; First Edition edition (2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1898800456
- ISBN-13: 978-1898800453
- Package Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 0.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,095,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum Paperback – 2005
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Michael Grant, a pre-eminent classical historian, provides a vivid look at the two doomed cities, their arts, trades, public and private life, squares, temples, and much more. All of it preserved when the cities were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.
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Grant's first chapter covers the history of the Campania area of Italy from Greek colonization through the Social Wars and into the mid First Century CE. This is a history of the area and its relationship with Greece and Rome. This construction is laid out before the reader effortlessly in nine pages. This is Grant at his best, totally relaxed with an easy mastery of the material to be covered. Subsequent chapters on the mountain, towns and meeting places, religion and philosphers, rural and urban residences, and three more topics are rolled out. This book was a fun read considering that the topics are approached in a scholarly fashion. Very rarely does the book lack the necessary level of detail. I know there are newer books on the subject, and there are certainly more specialized studies of Pompeii. However, in my case I learned a lot. And I enjoyed doing it.
Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 AD, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as seven other towns or villages. Pompeii and Herculaneum have been partially excavated. Grant convincingly recreates the day of the disaster, explaining how the residents of the two cities succumbed to different fates: many people in Pompeii had no time to escape, killed by poisonous gases or falling debris where they stood, their bodies frozen in place in perpetuity as pumice stone and ash hailed down; Herculaneum, in contrast, was consumed by a slow but steady flow of mud-lava, which buried the city but allowed the residents time to escape. In both places, the bodies of people and animals as well as thousands of objects were miraculously preserved, carbonized by the mud and ash. Even eggshells in a cupboards of Pompeii and Herculaneum remain intact. Grant explains the method by which the bodies were removed from the hardened ash that encased them, and he discusses the various (and sometimes disastrous) excavation efforts that have been made over the centuries.
Detailed descriptions of the cities - their physical layout, public and religious buildings, baths and public lavatories, cemeteries, and private houses - are provided. Grant also examines aspects of Roman life such as trade; religion (his discussion of the mystery religions is very interesting); sexuality (painted and sculpted phalluses abound in Pompeii and Herculaneum, giving rise to the mistaken 18th and 19th-century view of the cities as "scenes of more or less incessant orgy"); philosophy (huge numbers of papyri, mostly Epicurean treatises written in Greek, were found in Herculaneum); and recreation (Romans were compulsive gamblers and fornicators, and their fondness for blood sport is well known).
The best chapter in the book is that concerned with paintings, mosaics and furniture. The Romans' love of beauty, in the arts as well as in nature, comes through clearly. They covered the interiors of their homes, from floor to ceiling, in trompe l'oeil and mosaics, often depicting scenes from popular plays or literature. Every home had a lush garden; both flowers and vegetables were popular. The love of poetry and theatre is evident everywhere. Even the graffiti that covers the walls of the cities has a lyric quality: pornographic comments are scrawled in rhyming couplets, and graffitists quote Virgil and Diogenes to make their points. Grant's discussion of the four styles of paintings found in Pompeii and Herculaneum is exceptionally well done.
One frustrating thing about Grant is that he will cover very boring subjects like topography and plumbing in exhaustive detail while failing to elaborate upon fascinating historical tidbits that he mentions as casual asides. For example, at one point he describes the graffiti found written on the wall of a bathroom in a private home in Herculaneum: "Apollinaris the physician of the emperor Titus had a good (vulgar term for bowel movement that I'm not allowed to use in a review) here." Since the home did not belong to Apollinaris, I am dying to know if it was common practice for visitors to carve such things into the bathroom walls of their hosts' homes. Were the interiors of other homes filled with graffiti?
Aside from that minor gripe, I enjoyed this book. Four stars.
The book is shorter than one might expect (barely 170 pages from cover to cover), but it packs a lot of information about Roman life in 79 AD as explained within the context of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the subsequent destruction of surrounding communities. Detailed maps of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as floor plans of major buildings, make it easier to put everything in its proper place. What makes the text even more interesting is the inclusion of quotations from the graffiti scrawled all over the walls of both cities (including a brief but scathing remark from a customer about his inn-keeper's wine). Unfortunately, the material in this book is vintage 1971 -- the copies for sale are of a 2001 reprint -- and I could only hope that a new edition, incorporating the latest discoveries and scholarship, will come out soon.