Pompeii, By Mary Beard

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Traditionally, and understandably, our interest in Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, has centred on the dead – the dog tethered to his post, the lovers who died in each others' arms – preserved in pumice for 2,000 years. Mary Beard's focus is on the living: what was everyday life like in this provincial Roman town? She is of a sceptical temper and shows that much of what we think we know is guesswork or mythologising.

Nevertheless, using literary as well as archaeological evidence, she pieces together a mosaic (with plenty of gaps) of a bustling town with filthy streets – dark, unpoliced and scary at night – where more time was spent gambling than going to the theatre or visiting prostitutes (the town probably only had one brothel); where a household of 20 people would share one lavatory; where the rich dined on stuffed dormice while the poor lived on bread and cheese; where everybody had bad breath, and where the baths were so unhygienic that to go there with an open sore was to invite gangrene.