BMCR 2005.12.04

Pompeii. The Living City

, , Pompeii : the living city. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005. 354 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (chiefly color), maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0297645609 £20.00.

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While the premise of this book is both interesting and intriguing, it ultimately fails for both the general and academic reader. Ray Laurence, well recognised for his excellent work on the archaeological remains of Pompeii, has teamed up with journalist Alex Butterworth for this latest book dealing with Pompeii but from a somewhat different perspective than usual. Combining a literary narrative with archaeological and historical evidence, the authors hope to draw in the general reader as well. The idea is good, but this technique actually becomes irritating and frustrating after the first chapter. Still, this is an excellent text to dip into for information, though it cannot be read as a straight-forward general narrative nor will a scholar of the period find much that is new.

The first chapter explains the combined approach that the authors have decided upon and it is effective in the beginning. The subsequent division of the following chapters into selected topics is quite useful. Any information about the individuals living in Pompeii is by necessity conjecture, but the authors succeed in inserting narrative about individuals into the general topic of each chapter — a book solely devoted to this approach would perhaps have great appeal for the general reader. The academic side of the book, however, is weak and wandering. There are no footnotes and no index, so the academic reader is left with questions about the evidence presented without any help other than the bibliography at the end of the book.

Subsequent chapters focus on slavery, Imperial and provincial government, political campaigns, the role of women and sexuality, with an extremely broad canvas. The chapter on slavery is particularly well written with the narrative sketches adding to the academic approach quite effectively. In most of the other chapters, the fusion between narrative and scholarship is weak, digressive and irritating. The authors give too much information or not enough and they tease the reader with an interesting paragraph or two, but ultimately, do not follow up. Instead, they revert to a narrative section or vice versa, break off the narrative just when it becomes interesting.

The chronological approach is helpful. We are led through some twenty-five years of Pompeii’s (and Rome’s) history. The earthquake of 62 CE is discussed at length in a lively and informative manner, whilst subsequent chapters show how the provincial government tried to rebuild and re-establish the prominence of the city. Unfortunately, the city by the end of 64 had not yet been fully rehabilitated and evidence of the slow progress has been seen in the excavations post-79 CE. When the archaeological aspects of Pompeii are discussed, Laurence’s knowledge is clearly evident in the text, but the focus in this book unfortunately is less on the remains and more on the dynamics of the ‘living city’.

There is an emphasis within this book on weaving both Imperial and provincial figures, events and episodes into the narrative. We learn of Poppaea’s family connections in Pompeii, the repercussions of Agrippina’s murder and Nero’s actions in the last years of his rule. There is mention of Nero’s visit to Pompeii following the devastating earthquake or as the authors put it, ‘to the Campanian backwater (which) was probably in large part a favour to (Poppaea)’ (209). This was fascinating, but required patient reading on less relevant and digressive topics before small nuggets of interesting facts could be found.

There are some historical errors, such as the discussion of the emperor in the first century BCE (see for example, p. 71 regarding the grain dole). Any scholar of the period viewing this book would have expected a better discussion of the grain dole in the later Republic, which would have included the tributes Marcus Porcius Cato ( 62 BCE) and particularly, Clodius ( 58 BCE, but the matter is ignored. The main criticism is of course that there was no ’emperor’ in the first century BCE! The general reader might not know the specifics, but academics reading this book will have many occasions in which a general statement causes problems.

The plates included by the authors are interesting, with frescos and painting of buildings discussed but now lost. There is however only one picture of the modern archaeological site of Pompeii itself, the remainder illustrate ordinary life in and around Pompeii. These plates do add to the book, but nevertheless further plates and photographs of Pompeii would have been beneficial.

The final sections of the book offer a graphic and engaging narrative on the events of August 79 CE, but the end lacks a full summation. This is really one of the fundamental problems with their approach. The information presented is interesting, but too detailed for a general narrative and not academic enough either. It needs to be read in small bits, but without an index, it is not very helpful to any reader unless they have the time and inclination to shift through the some three hundred pages with pen and post-it handy.

This book tries too hard to be too many things. For a novice unaware of the city and the period of history discussed, this book offers a convoluted perspective with too many digressions to keep the general reader interested in the narrative. For the academic, this book is unhelpful. The digressions that would alienate the general reader are not detailed enough to stand as good academic writing, and without an index or footnotes, the scholar is left wading through hundreds of pages with no end in sight. Still, the idea of presenting the provincial city of Pompeii as a ‘living city’ is laudatory. Trying to put the human face on the city, the narrative sections are interesting and work on their own. The best suggestion would be a more general approach with lots of photographs interspersed with the narrative sections. Mixing them into this book as a whole undermines their effectiveness and undercuts the whole idea behind this book. This is neither a book for the general reader nor the academic — it tries to combine the two approaches but ultimately fails. There are some interesting parts to this book, but overall, it is a great disappointment.

[I note with interest a recent response (BMCR 2007.05.05) to this review. It was the first UK edition that was reviewed some eighteen months ago; however, I am now aware that the 2nd edition (now on as a first USA edition, published in November 2006) has taken my suggestions for an index and notes to heart. Whilst I do not stand corrected, I do stand amended. The addition of an index/notes does greatly assist the scholar, and I am happy to redress this disservice noted in my review, which was based on a 1st UK edition, published in 2005. — Pamela Marin, 5/9/2007.]