Is Ostia the new Pompeii?
I am now – and for the next 5 weeks – living the life of a hermit-scholar, writing my Sather lectures, one a week. I’ve taken the car back to the rental company because I shan’t be going anywhere and I walk to the campus each day, or go by bus (equipped with the local equivalent of an Oyster card).
The bus has its humiliations I should say. Berkeley is a town full of caring, liberal, socially conscious young people. Almost every time I get on, some nice person gets up, beaming and gives me their seat. They think they have made my day. They have in a way, seeing that having a seat is an altogether nicer way to travel. But I get off the bus feeling about 85. If only the kids realised, they’d just keep sitting.
But I have in off moments been catching up with archaeological news. The first bit I came across (thanks to a friend who sent me a link) was the publicity campaign of the ancient Roman port-town of Ostia (pictured above), being marketed once again by the local archaeological service as the new Pompeii. Well, it’s a great site, covered over by centuries of sand rather than the volcanic ash of the eruption, well preserved and not much visited and only 15 miles on an easy train ride from Rome.
And indeed there are some highlights. As well as the glimpse you get of Roman high-rise living (the insula blocks talked about by Juvenal among others), my own particular favourite is the Bar of the Seven Sages whose paintings take the piss (literally) out of Greek philosophical wisdom. The walls are decorated with men on the loo, and painted slogans of advice as given by ancient philosophers – on shitting.
But Pompeii, it isn’t. There’s none of the bric a brac of daily life or the illusion of a town deserted in mid stream or that sense of a real city.
Quite what the new Berlusconi commissar will do to Pompeii itself, we still wait to see. There were threats of hiring the place out to corporate events for those companies that could still afford to pay during the credit crunch (perhaps this is a good side to the global economic meltdown – not even the biggest multinational will be able to afford Pompeii).
I don’t quite know what I think about this. I’m old enough to have loved Pink Floyd playing at Pompeii (at least on the movie); I was brought up on Shakespeare plays in the ruins of Ludlow Castle; I have a soft spot for opera in the Roman Baths of Caracalla; and I like the idea (if not always the uncomfortable reality) of ancient Greek drama at the theatre of Epidaurus.
That is to say, the idea of archaeological sites being simply for the reverent contemplation of the ruins seems quite ghastly. But the point is, if you use them for spectacles and shows, and knit them back into contemporary culture, who is your target audience?
The trouble with the Domingo extravaganza was that it was way beyond the reach price-wise of the local population. There is nothing worse than the idea of these big sites being open to school kids, backpackers and other ‘ordinary tourists’ during the day… while the toffs arrive by limo at night to enjoys some expensive opera and champagne.
How, in that case, do you expect the local population to want to pay to keep these sites up. Because that depends on local good will and money, and on more than the proceeds of a few celebrity shows.