The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
is a work of historical nonfiction by Winifred Mary Beard. First published in 2008, the book delves into Pompeii’s forgotten past to explore what the city was truly like before Mount Vesuvius destroyed it in 79 AD. The book won the 2009 Wolfson History Prize, and critics praise it for its comprehensive insight into this lost city. Beard is the Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and she is a Newnham College fellow. She is one of the UK’s best-known classicists and the author of numerous nonfiction books.The Fires of Vesuvius
covers what happens to Pompeii in August 79 AD. During this time, Mount Vesuvius erupts and takes the city with it. The lava is so hot that it turns everyone to stone as it spreads through the city. Once the lava hardens, everyone and everything caught in its path are preserved underneath the hardened rock.
Beard notes that the city of Pompeii and its inhabitants are so well preserved that archaeologists can make out details ranging from their final movements to their facial expressions. This unusual level of preservation in Pompeii fascinates Beard, allowing her to immerse herself fully in the life and soul of the city.The Fires of Vesuvius
is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter covers a different aspect of life in Pompeii, from home décor to relationships. By examining Pompeii’s unearthed remains, Beard hopes to show us what the average day in Pompeii looked like at every level of society. The book’s primary purpose is to expose the differences between the two Pompeii’s—the real city and the city we imagine it to be. Beard admits that there is still much we will never understand about life in Pompeii and that even the date of the eruption can’t be accurately identified.
The book opens with a fictionalized account of Pompeii’s final hours. Beard describes residents sheltering from the pumice raining down on them before Mount Vesuvius erupts. When Mount Vesuvius explodes, it releases lethal debris and toxic fumes. If the molten rock hurtling through the city didn’t kill the inhabitants, the gases and debris would.
What is clear from the archaeological site, Beard says, is that no one understood the danger they were in. Even if they had realized, they couldn’t possibly outrun the destruction. Archaeologists have unearthed around four hundred bodies from between layers of pumice, and another seven hundred inside the solidified remains of the lava flow. These bodies served as tourist attractions for visiting celebrities and dignitaries many hundreds of years later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Beard explains that from the moment archaeologists discovered Pompeii, inaccuracies, sensationalism, and publicity stunts abounded.The Fires of Vesuvius
reveals a major problem with contemporary efforts to understand Pompeii—as the city is so well preserved, there is an overwhelming amount of information available. It is difficult for historians or archaeologists to know where to begin, and every piece of evidence, whether a statue, a house, or a mural, is open to interpretation. The result is that we now have a contradictory and sprawling body of evidence about this city, and it is unlikely we will ever get closer to its truths.
Although Beard covers the archaeological remains in some detail, she talks at length about daily life in the city and what we can safely assume about life in Ancient Rome more generally. For example, it’s obvious from the remains, and what we know about Ancient Rome, that poor people ate in communal places, whereas the wealthy dined privately at home. The Romans loved their entertainment, wine, and sexual escapades; this is obvious from the evidence scattered around the city. The Fires of Vesuvius
combines what we know with the Ancient Rome still awaiting discovery.
Beard combines humor with historical fact in every chapter. For example, Beard highlights how the residents of Pompeii loved scrawling graffiti everywhere. There are crude declarations of love, apologies, insults, and general nonsense, all of which build a picture of a people who were more like us than we perhaps realize. Children are found drawing stickmen on the city walls, and adults are found clutching their dearest possessions and loved ones.
The book also considers the contrast between our perception of Ancient Roman hygiene and medical advancement, and reality. Doctors are found with their medical supplies, including speculums rather like the ones in use today. Although baths are popular and hygiene is important, traces of intestinal worms are scattered throughout the city because of overcrowding and sanitation. These traces, Beard notes, are still identifiable all these centuries later.
Although there are humorous takes in the book, Beard dedicates space to the tragedy of Pompeii and the human cost of the destruction. She urges us to remember that this disaster wiped out an entire city and every one of its inhabitants, and that this could easily happen to us. Just as we shouldn’t romanticize Pompeii, we shouldn’t forget its sad demise, either. The Fires of Vesuvius
concludes with hints, tips, and practical advice on visiting the site, so that tourists may get the most out of their experience.