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.
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.