BMCR 2008.03.33

The Complete Pompeii

, The complete Pompeii. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. 256 pages : illustrations (some color), maps (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780500051504 $40.00.

Joanne Berry has spent many years working at the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum ( Unpeeling Pompeii: Studies in Region I of Pompeii, edited by Joanne Berry [Milan: Electa, 1998]), and her enthusiasm for the mystique and wonder of these ancient cities’ unexpected treasures is evident on every page of The Complete Pompeii.1 The strength of Berry’s book is in its wide range of information on the subject, concisely and thoughtfully arranged to appeal to scholars and teachers — classicists, archaeologists, and historians — as well as to students and the layman. Her choice of illustrations deftly supports the text and elicits the reader’s continuing interest. The Complete Pompeii provides background information about the “discovery” of Pompeii in the early eighteenth century, though local inhabitants had always called the site, a sixty-or-more acre field, Civita (which Berry renders as La Cività). Berry begins by summarizing what we already know of Pompeii and outlines, often in close detail, what we are learning from ongoing work of the lives and deaths of the city’s inhabitants. Her purpose is clearly to present in a single volume an up-to-date account of the facts and controversies surrounding Pompeii in the early twenty-first century. Regarding the often unintelligible and confusing mass of archaeological remains of public and private buildings and public spaces, Berry has a distinct talent for gleaning valuable insights about the ancient Pompeians’ daily lives. The author astutely interweaves her information about the site with past and more recent political and historical background circumstances. The saga of Pompeii’s excavations has always been inextricably tied to political contexts from Charles VII of Palermo to Mussolini. Pompeii remains arguably the most important civic monument in Italian culture and has been exploited to this end for good and bad.

The Complete Pompeii begins with a chapter titled “Disaster in the Shadow of Vesuvius”, which describes how Pompeii (and Herculaneum) were destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Berry reproduces in full the two letters by Pliny the Younger who described to Tacitus what he had seen from a distance — the distinctive “umbrella pine” shape of the cloud which has given modern vulcanologists the term “Plinian” for this early phase of an eruption. The author includes other ancient references to Vesuvius, including suspicions by some observers (Strabo, Vitruvius, and Diodorus Siculus) that Vesuvius may have been an active volcano in its past. This is interesting because it suggests that not everyone at the time was surprised by what happened. Suetonius and Dio Cassius describe an admirably organized relief effort overseen by the emperor Titus, a disaster relief operation which apparently puts to shame FEMA’s efforts in New Orleans.

Chapter Two, “Rediscovering Pompeii’s Buried Past”, provides background information about the first digs, or rather plundering, of the site, which seems to have been discovered, at least in the modern era, in 1708. Berry points out, however, that extensive tunneling found beneath the hardened ash, lapilli, and tufa may date to soon after the eruption when the city’s inhabitants returned in search of their possessions. Sadly, as Berry writes, Pompeii suffered much irreparable destruction, both to the site and to artifacts buried within it, when haphazard digging, often by fortune hunters, uncovered, re-covered, shuffled, and re-shuffled discarded piles of detritus, thus obliterating find-spots of artifacts that were later returned. The first modern consideration for the condition of the digs is found in a letter by Horace Walpole in 1740, in which he deplores “the lack of judicious direction over the recovery of this reservoir of antiquities. . . . If only a man of learning had the inspection of it and directed the working, and would make a journal of it” (40.)

Chapter Three, “Birth and Growth of a Roman Town”, examines the recent upsurge in interest in Pompeii’s history before the eruption of AD 79. A number of strategically chosen stratigraphic excavations are being carried out in different parts of the town in an effort to establish a chronology of settlements by Oscans, Greeks, Etruscans, and Samnites before Pompeii came under Roman control in 290 BC (64-66). Interestingly, a Bronze Age settlement in the region of Campania near the present site of Nola had been destroyed sometime in the fourth millennium BC by an eruption of Vesuvius.

Berry’s focus in Chapter Four (“The People of Pompeii”) is aimed at the inhabitants of Pompeii. She estimates the population at between eight and twelve thousand people, consisting of the freeborn, freedmen, and slaves. The city’s racial diversity was apparently not as mixed as expected for a port city. Romans predominated alongside much smaller numbers of Oscans and Greeks. Berry asserts that some evidence may point to the presence of a Jewish and/or Christian community in Pompeii and Herculaneum, such as the names Mary and Martha inscribed on walls and some few Semitic inscriptions on amphorae, which, of course, may only indicate the presence of Jewish traders. She admits that the paucity of evidence makes the suggestion of a Jewish community very unlikely (201). Although many houses of the elite have separate slave quarters, it has long been a question whether and how slaves were buried. Berry points out interestingly that “there is evidence to suggest that some slaves at least were buried in the family tombs of their masters” (91).

A popular window into daily life in Pompeii has long been provided by its variety of graffiti, ranging from the vulgar ( Phoebus the perfumer fucks the best) to the pragmatic ( A brass pot disappeared from this shop. If anyone brings it back, he’ll be rewarded with 65 sesterces), and including drawings and caricatures.2 It remains unknown how many people in the Roman empire could read and write, but the fact of over 11,000 examples of the written word at Pompeii suggests that a considerable number of Pompeians could, at the very least, read and write at a rudimentary level. Berry interprets a wall painting from the house of Julia Felix as a school scene; it depicts a row of boys sitting (out of doors) in the Forum with wax tablets on their knees while another boy receives a caning by the schoolmaster. The reviewer is particularly grateful for Berry’s inclusion, though necessarily limited, of erotic scenes from the infamous “secret cabinet” in the Naples Museum in the form of paintings, sculpture, and mosaics, as well as a more extended section (112-119) discussing the roles of women in Pompeian life.

Chapter Five (“Life in the Public Eye”) deals with public life, the dynamics of which can be studied in surprising detail at Pompeii. Reputations and status were enhanced for individuals who won public office. Particularly unique to Pompeii and found in great numbers are “programmata” or posters painted in red or black on white background supporting specific candidates for public office. Berry writes that, based on their freshness at the time of excavation, we know the names of leading candidates for the aedileship (junior magistracy) in AD 79.

Berry devotes several pages to descriptions and color plates of the theaters of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Remarkably, a large arena-shaped depression in Civita was repeatedly dismissed by mid-eighteenth-century excavators as simply a low spot in the field, and it was not until much later that archaeologists revealed it to be Pompeii’s beautifully preserved amphitheater. Pompeii boasted a covered theater, or Odeon, the roof of which would have greatly enhanced acoustics, making it an attractive and forgiving venue for reading poetry and rhetoric (124), and an open-air theater was found next to it. A new fashion for porticoed buildings in Augustan Italy may be evident, Berry suggests, in the similarities between the porticoed Eumachia Building (excavated in 1822 — its function debated ever since) and the portico around Pompeii’s forum. The basilica with portico at Herculaneum is another, though controversial, example.

Although we can study the structure and often the decoration and contents of Pompeian houses, we remain far removed from being able to reconstruct the composition of individual households, their domestic organization, and the activities that took place within the houses (154). Other recent scholarship makes less problematic the topic of domestic organization.3 In Chapter Six (“Houses and Society”), besides houses and their inhabitants, Berry examines wall paintings, mosaics, and garden layouts and offers sumptuous color photos of many of the lesser known mosaics and wall paintings. Many of the finest examples of mosaics are found in Pompeii and Herculaneum where they have been described as “carpets,” since emblems are often placed at their centers. She provides a detailed and informative outline of the four styles of Pompeian wall-painting from 150 BC to AD 79 (170-71). Of course, Berry lavishes a much deserved attention on the House of the Faun, which was certainly one of the wealthiest and most luxurious houses in Pompeii: “Originally excavated in 1830-32, the House of the Faun was stripped of its elaborate mosaics by the excavators, abandoned to the elements, and finally damaged in the Allied bombing of 1943. What can be seen today only hints at the grandeur of the 32,000 square foot house, the largest in Pompeii” (163). Lastly, Berry devotes several pages to the domestic gardens of Pompeian houses and to descriptions and photographs of a sampling of the thousands of household objects of unknown provenance stored at the Naples Museum.

In Chapter Seven (“Gods, Temples, and Cults”) Berry examines what can be reconstructed about public religious and cult practices in Pompeii. Apparently, Venus held the most popularity in the town: “More statuettes and wall-paintings [of Venus] have been found in the houses and streets of Pompeii than any other deity” (195). Of course, these may only be ornaments, since statuettes and wall-paintings of Dionysus are also found at the site. After 80 BC, when Pompeii became an official Roman colony, Roman temples or existing temples that had been Romanized dominated, although other, local deities retained some of their earlier importance along with certain approved “foreign” cults such as that of Isis. However, excavations even in the early eighteenth century were well documented, though the sites were usually looted of objects of value such as wall-paintings. Early visitors often made drawings of the paintings and the original excavators kept documentation so that in recent years there has been considerable success in reconstructing the original find-spots of looted material, and we have a good idea of what the temple looked like in AD 79 (205). The oldest temple is the Augustan Temple of Fortuna Augusta. From the Augustan period onward, public religion included gods directly associated with the emperors, both dead and alive (192). Berry describes these as “civic” or “state” cults that had little to do with personal religious practice and more to do with allegiance to Rome. Archaeological evidence dates two temples to the 6th century BC, the Doric Temple, and the Temple of Apollo. She reports that there may also be compelling evidence for a temple to Mephitis, the Samnite goddess of love (188). A fourth temple predating the Roman period and established by Samnite magistrates in the 3rd century BC is the Temple of Bacchus, outside Pompeii at Sant’ Abbondio. Of course, every Pompeian family had in its home a special shrine — the lararium — honoring its own protective deities — the Lares.

Chapter Eight is titled “Economic Life in a Roman Town”. The so-called “Via dell’Abbondanza” is the longest and was apparently the busiest street in Pompeii. Lined with shops of every kind, it stretched from the Forum to the Sarno Gate and the Amphitheater (210). Because of the region’s volcanic soil, the fertility of Pompeii’s land was renowned in antiquity. Wine was the town’s principal product, but fruit and nut trees and vegetables were cultivated also. Berry includes a comprehensive list of occupations attested at Pompeii in inscriptions, graffiti, and wax tablets (221).

Fittingly, the book ends with “The Last Years of Pompeii”. The quality of life in Pompeii’s last years was severely impaired by a devastating earthquake in AD 63 or 62 (the issue is still debated) that lasted for several days and was clearly a premonitory sign of the eruption of 79. Berry summarizes thus: “The 16 years from this earthquake in AD 63 to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 were marked by disruption as the inhabitants of the town attempted to rebuild their lives, and endured further seismic activity” (234). Although many inhabitants, both rich and poor, undoubtedly left the city in disgust after the 63/62 earthquakes, the majority clearly remained to face the final catastrophe in AD 79. We have two ancient reports of the seriousness of the earthquake, one by the historian Tacitus and the other, in much greater detail, by Seneca, the philosopher and tutor to the young Nero. In fact, Berry notes, Seneca’s description of the town’s destruction has been fundamental to the modern discussion of living conditions in the last years of Pompeii’s life (236).

Berry is to be commended for producing a book that concisely gathers in a single volume a wide variety of enlightening aspects of the famous city destroyed and yet preserved in many ways that shed light on first-century Roman life. The physical quality of the book is exquisite — satin gloss pages generously interspersed with color photographs ranging from aerial shots to rarely shown artifacts (for example, preserved organic material such as boiled eggs, which I have never seen in my several visits to the Pompeii collection in the Naples museum). I recommend the book to all audiences and especially to university or secondary school Latin teachers, who will find it most valuable when introducing their students to the Younger Pliny’s famous letters to the historian Tacitus, describing the events that led to his uncle’s death on the beach at Stabiae. More than anything, however, the book is a comprehensive survey of what is arguably the most famous archaeological site in the world.

Printer’s errors:

p. 40: “. . . exciting finds made been made in . . .” should read “. . . exciting finds had been made in . . .”

p. 219: “. . . such asa chisel” should read “. . . such as a chisel.”


1. A spate of new books on Pompeii has come out recently (e.g., Dobbins and Foss, above; Alex Butterworth, Pompeii: The Living City [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006] and Allison Cooley, Pompeii [London: Duckworth, 2003]), among which Berry’s The Complete Pompeii easily holds it own because of its broad scope and appealing admixture of constituent text and illustrations.

2. There are a number of rather humorous graffiti that Berry didn’t include which might have added pleasantly to her list, such as “miximus in lecto; fateor, peccavimus, hospes. Si dicis quare, nulla matella fuit,” (“I confess, innkeeper, that I did bad. I pissed in your bed. If you want to know why, it’s because there wasn’t any pot!”) [Walter H. Marks, Claimed By Vesuvius (Wellesley Hill, MA: The Independent School Press, 1975), 27].

3. For example, see J.-A. Dickmann, “Residences in Herculaneum.” In The World of Pompeii, John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss, eds (London: Routledge, July 2007); Stephan T.A.M. Mols, Eric M. Moormann, Omni pede stare. Saggi architettonici e circumvesuviani in memoriam Jos de Waele. Studi della Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei 9 (Naples: Electa Napoli and Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, 2005); and Penelope Mary Allison, The Archaeology of Household Activities (London: Routledge, 1999).