Review: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, British Museum

By Robert Howard

It isn’t easy to decide. For the visitor going through this exhibition two artifacts stand out as particularly poignant. It is hard to know which has the bigger pathos.

One is a small marble relief showing a temple being shaken by an earthquake. The image has an innocent simplicity. What it depicts is, of course, a prelude to the eruption of Vesuvius. But the artist and the citizens of Pompeii did not know to connect these early earthquakes with the catastrophe to come. They were a sign they recorded but could not read.

The second is a cradle. This time from Herculaneum. Touch it and it will rock. But it is black. The heat turned the wood instantly to charcoal driving out all moisture and preventing it from decay. A carbon relic, the black remains of the baby now removed.

The exhibition is not then monumental. The orators, generals, senators, emperors and equestrian statues we might normally associate with shows about ancient Rome are none. What we have here are the details of daily life. The dates, the figs, the loaf of bread. All now charcoal, but perfectly recognizable. The chamber pot, the wind chime, the bracket to hold back the curtain. The two cuttlefish in a still life. The display table. The gold jewellery. The pillar of the community with a wart on the side of his face.

There is an emphasis throughout on living as well as you can and putting on a bit of a show. And after an hour or two, you are likely to feel that the lives you are observing were not destroyed by that eruption in 79 AD. Those lives are ours.

A lamp stand, its top with a screw thread to attach it to the upright… you’d like to see the Latin assembly instructions. The dog to remind the burglar there might be a better way to spend his time. The fashionable hairstyle. The latest trend in interior design. The sexual innuendo as graffiti on the wall. The pub sign not the white hart or the red bull, but the yellow phoenix. The love-making. The making fun of old heroes as in a statue of Hercules swaying and urinating after a good night out. The garden. A bottle of sauce.

The impression is not of remoteness but of recognition…And finally there is a third candidate for most poignant artifact. This time the poignancy is ours too. Black on a white ground. It is a mosaic of a skeleton. Bringing wine. Seize the day. Carpe diem. We are not here long.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum, London until 29th September 2013.

Robert Howard is a language teacher and translator.  He lives near Venice, Italy.

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