Up, up Pompeii!

A sell-out exhibition, a haunting hit song and now a big-budget movie – the doomed Roman city never ceases to inspire. Natalie Haynes examines its horrible fascination

For a small city in southern Italy, Pompeii has a stranglehold on our imaginations like few other places ever have. It lends itself to everything from a blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum to Frankie Howerd in an eyebrow-raised romp. Along the way, it has starred in a best-selling novel by Robert Harris, an episode of Doctor Who, and a haunting hit song by Bastille. Now it is the subject of a spectacular new film, Pompeii, opening this week, and based on the writings of Pliny the Younger.

This may come as a surprise to those of us who read Pliny at school. He has many virtues, but the ability to spin a good yarn is rarely among them. He is, after all, the man who survived the eruption of Vesuvius (which killed the natural historian Pliny the Elder, his uncle), because he preferred to stay at home reading than go and see what all the smoke and fuss was about. The elder Pliny died – probably of suffocation – trying to rescue his friends. The younger Pliny lived to tell the tale: proof, if any were needed, that swottiness is good for your health.

But his description of the terrible day is limited to two letters, which detail many of the physical phenomena – the smoke, the falling ash, pumice and stones, the raging sea – that obsess plenty of us even now. Because surely the reason that we can't get enough of Pompeii is because it has such a powerful, awful narrative pull: ordinary people caught in a disaster movie they couldn't hope to predict or understand. Pliny may have resisted the urge to throw himself into history as it was being made, but many people didn't get the chance to avoid it.

Narrative pull: the ruins of Pompeii Narrative pull: the ruins of Pompeii (Getty) Pompeii was a pleasure town, full of people indulging in brothels and bars. It had seen better days, even before Vesuvius erupted. As Mary Beard has pointed out, the city was pretty dilapidated before AD79: it had been damaged by earthquakes, and not rebuilt to its former glory, which suggests that money wasn't as plentiful as it had been. Now, of course, we know that those earthquakes were a precursor to the volcanic eruption. But for the Pompeiians, it was just one bit of bad luck after another. And this sense of their going about their business, horribly unaware of what was about to happen, is another compelling part of their story.

Last year's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum caught the pathos perfectly. The structure of the show – a Roman house, with items shown in the rooms they belonged in – reminded us of the domestic scale of the drama. Real people, living real lives, with their prized mosaics and statues and jewels and coins, their gardens and kitchens and even a tiny wooden cot. Just as you were revelling in the sheer good fortune of all these wonderful objects' surviving for us to see, you turned a corner and bang. On the floor were the curled corpses of a family who were cooked to death in unimaginable temperatures.

And that is the terrible but compelling draw of Pompeii: it was one of the Museum's most successful exhibitions, visited by almost half a million people. The survival of so many everyday objects lures us into thinking that the citizens of Pompeii were just like us (which, in some ways, they were). But then we have to come to terms with the fact that we know all of this only because they died in such a horrific way. It's all too easy to imagine their fear and panic and agony.

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

    Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

    Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

    Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices