10 things you need to know about Pompeii
OK – to celebrate my new book (officially out on 18th, sorry to repeat)… here’s my favourite facts and non-facts about Pompeii.
1. The inhabitants of the Roman town were all killed by the eruption of 79. Wrong. Just over 1000 bodies have been discovered – out of a population of perhaps 12,000. Most of them made it to safety.
2. The city lay undisturbed from the day Vesuvius erupted until its rediscovery in the eighteenth century. Wrong again, I’m afraid. Almost straightway the locals came back to salvage their stuff, digging through the volcanic rubble, and if they were lucky, heaving out some of the most valuable stuff. If they were unlucky, their tunnels collapsed and they got smothered in the process.
3. The people of Pompeii were caught completely unawares by the disaster. Well only the very unobservant ones were. There had been rumblings and mini-earthquakes for days. Cracks were appearing everywhere. That’s why so many of the houses had the decorators in. They might not have known exactly what – but they knew something nasty was going on.
4. The body of a rich lady was found in the gladiators’ barracks – she was visiting her gladiator toy-boy when the eruption came. OK, half right. A female skeleton with expensive jewelry WAS found in a room in the barracks, but she wasn’t on an assignation – unless she didn’t mind 17 other people and a couple of dogs sharing her love-nest. She was probably using the barracks as a refuge on her flight out of town, with all the rest of them.
5. Pompeii is a marvellous example of Roman water engineering. That is Robert Harris’s line in his novel Pompeii – and certainly the aqueducts and water supply were pretty impressive. BUT there were no sewers. Pompeii was a town of cess-pits, and streets that acted as drains. (No wonder they needed the stepping stones to cross from pavement to pavement.)
6. Pompeii was full of brothels. Sure, some eager archaeologists have thought they can count more than 30 of them – in other words about one for ever 75 free male inhabitants of the town. But that is the result of counting any place with a hint of an erotic painting as a brothel. On my count there is just one – currently the most visited place in the town, doing a brisker trade than it ever did in antiquity I suspect.
7. Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 CE, as Pliny records in his letter describing the disaster. Sadly even this probably isn’t true. Pliny certainly describes the eruption, but as with almost all dates in Latin literature they get awfully mangled in the process of centuries of copying by hand. We don’t actually know what Pliny wrote (or, of course, even if he remembered right). And a dated coin, which couldn’t possibly have been dropped by looters, seems to show the town was still going strong in September 79.
8. The Pompeians had good teeth – thanks to that healthy Mediterranean diet. Partly true. The teeth that have been examined show much less caries than modern populations have, but there is still plenty of it about. But without toothbrushes the calculus build-up was dreadful. Bad breath must have been a feature of Pompeian life.
9. The Pompeian baths were a good way of keeping clean. There were plenty of bathing establishments in the town – with cold rooms, hot rooms, saunas, swimming pool, exercise yards and so on. Great in theory, but there were problems in practice. Imagine it. No chlorination and only a limited water circulation. The pools must have been festering, steamy, hotbeds of germs. Even Ronan doctors recommended not going to the baths if you had a wound – it could lead to gangrene.
10. Pompeian bars served wine and chunky stews as take-aways from the great vats set in their counters. A complete no-no here I’m afraid. Those bars with counters facing the street, and the jars set into them are one of the regular sights of the Pompeian street. But they cant have had liquid in them, and certainly not stews. They were made of unglazed earthenware and were permanently set in the bars. How would you have cleaned the remnants of the stew out? The wine amphorae were kept in racks and the plonk decanted into jugs. The jars held nuts, fruit, lentils and other dry stuff.