Pompeii in Mexico
Sometimes “the penny drops” just when you are not expecting it. While I have been at the Getty, apart from tidying up the final stages of my Triumph book (and no, I still haven’t quite finished the proofs), I’ve been getting down to the next thing. As I've mentioned before, this is a book on Pompeii.
The project is a simple one: to use Pompeii to capture something about life in the ancient city. Books on daily life in the Roman world, with one or two honourable exceptions, tend to be disappointing (“Romans rose early and took a light breakfast” – you know the kind of thing). So why not try to go in through the one city we know best?
Besides there is a huge amount of specialised new work on Pompeii (like the ruts I posted about earlier) that hasn’t much impacted on books for a wider audience. They tend to make more of the vulcanology and its horrors (“their brains boiled”) than life pre-eruption. In my book, Vesuvius will definitely not have the starring role.
The problem I have is not getting together some marvellously evocative material. I had, for example, no idea that a monkey’s skeleton had been found among the bones at Pompeii. And I’m still curious about those ruts. The problem is being able simply to picture the street scene. I haven’t been able to close my eyes and conjure up the living city.
Until I went to Mexico.
As we drove from the airport on the first day through the backstreets of Oaxaca, I said straightaway: “This is Pompeii”. There were narrow, paved main(ish) roads – intersected by unpaved, dirt-track cross-streets. Low-rise shops and workshops, with wide doorways, line the streets; sometimes they have an upper storey, sometimes not. Every now and then, a larger and grander residential property emerged, with an impressive portal but an otherwise off-putting blank exterior. On the more populous streets, there were political slogans too – not on posters or bills, but painted directly on the walls by obviously professional sign writers (and there were a good few old ones, which had clearly been painted over). Just like those Pompeian “electoral dipinti”.
When we got to the ex-village, now suburb, where we were staying, it was much the same. Grand houses, with peristyle gardens, lurking behind curtain walls, cheek by jowl with the local internet café or hardware store. The husband aptly compared our hotel to the House of the Faun.
The point, I reflected, was not that this place looked like Pompeii might have done. It was more that it seemed to share with the ancient world an idea of what (to put it in the jargon) “urban space” was for, and the acceptable collocations between poverty and wealth, luxury and squalor. In London (or Los Angeles), the very rich tend not to live next to hardware stores.
The irony was, I discovered, that one of the painted wall-slogans had already made a link to the Roman world. Not far from the hotel was the local library, with its name and an improving message painted on its façade. That message ran (in Spanish):
“Science and letters are the nourishment of youth and the diversion of old age”.
It’s a quote from Cicero’s speech Pro Archia (the defence of a poet): haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant.