Doctor Who -- Up Pompeii
There were enough good jokes to keep even the meanest classicist amused in Doctor Who’s visit to Pompeii on Saturday night.
For a start, when Donna and the Doctor emerged from the tardis, they immediately assumed that they were in ancient Rome. Well actually they were. Any keen follower of historical movies can spot the “ancient Rome” built at Cinecittà in modern Rome a mile off (it’s actually very like the “ancient Rome” built in modern Tunisia, except the whole thing is a bit bigger and the extras tend to have a slightly lighter facial colouring).
But just a few minutes into the plot, the table were nicely turned when we saw an unmistakable Vesuvius looming at the end of the street. The penny quickly dropped for us and for the Doctor. This must be Pompeii.
And it turned out to be August 23 AD 79: for those in the know (like the Doctor) the day before the final eruption. At least that is the usual date: an alternative school of thought, based on the traces of pollen found in the volcanic ash and on the heavy clothes worn by a number of the victims thinks it must have been later in the autumn. (I’m not convinced by the clothing argument. I always imagine I might put on my winter woollies in the middle of an eruption.)
A good start. And hopes that the writers actually knew something about the history of Pompeii and even knew a little Latin were not disappointed.
There were, for example, plenty of reference to the earthquake which had struck the city in 62 (or 63 according to another alternative line of thought) – which may, or may not, have had something to do with the Pyroviles (I cant honestly remember). The city had also obviously been experiencing a fair number of tremors in the run-up to the “Big One”. That is exactly in tune with modern archaeological orthodoxy. We now think that the reason that almost every Pompeian house seems to have had the decorators in at the moment they were overwhelmed is because they were trying to patch up all those recent cracks. No archaeologist, so far as I know, has spotted the Pyrovile connection.
Best of all, the screen writers had obviously done the Cambridge Latin Course back in high school. For those reading this outside the UK, the CLC is the favourite modern school course for teaching kids Latin in this country. The first book is set in Pompeii, around an ordinary Pompeian family: Caecilius the banker, Metella his wife, and Quintus the son.
Who did the Doctor meet when he arrived? Caecilius, of course (though apparently no longer a banker, but in the marble trade), Metella and Quintus. The family had also, since the CLC was written, grown a daughter Evelina, who was here briefy in the power of the Pyroviles, uttering weird prophecies and having her arm turn to stone.
For Doctor Who fans the big question at the end was whether the time-lord Doctor was going to allow himself to re-write history and rescue Caecilius and his family. The human Donna eventually persuades him to do so. So, whereas in the CLC only Quintus lives to fight another day, in the Doctor Who version, we find the whole family six months later living happily ever after in Rome.
What actually happened to the REAL Caecilius (for the CLC had based him on the figure of Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, hundreds of whose wax tablet survive detailing his transactions) – we do not know. The chances are that he died before Vesuvius started to rumble.