Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.
“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.
Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.
The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.
The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.
A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.
%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”
The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.
Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.
The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.
These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.
This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.
“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.