Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mary Beard's Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town

Review in TLS by W.V. Harris:

Being Mary Beard is a difficult balancing act. On the one side is the unrepentant scholar, trained in Latin epigraphy in the rigorous school of Joyce Reynolds, passionately determined to get things exactly right, ready to weigh probabilities judiciously, and thoroughly informed about the contents of the latest Dutch festschrift. On the other is the ardent blogger, and the writer (and TLS Classics editor) determined to communicate with audiences larger than a Roman historian or archaeologist can normally reach.

Pompeii: The life of a Roman town combines these two personae, often triumphantly, sometimes a little uneasily. Beard’s knowledge of what has been written about Pompeii – a huge amount – is encyclopedic and up-to-the-minute. She knows, for example, who has argued (in a Dutch festschrift) that the wall painting which shows a man on horseback labelled “Spartaks” is not after all Spartacus with his name in Oscan, as some of us had fondly imagined and as I still believe. She is also capable of practising the important ars nesciendi and leaving insoluble problems unresolved, such as the meaning of the famous wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries, which as a historian of religion she is well qualified to write about. Pet theories are not pushed, or at least not often. Thus though the book is personal in tone, it is also a remarkably reliable resource.

This is, thank heavens, a history book and not yet another glorified piece of antiquarianism. Beard always has context. This historicizing approach can sometimes, alas, have a slightly deflating effect, when you learn, for instance, that the wall paintings at the Villa of the Mysteries, unearthed in 1909, look so splendid because they were heavily restored very early on. But the overall effect is to replace the simplifications of the coffee table books with a complex story, in which archaeologists too are human, doing their best – or what is convenient – according to their lights, in whatever age they happen to live.

Beard creates a credible Roman Pompeii that is both noisy and smelly, yet she does so without exaggeration. This is an indispensable book for the Pompeian visitor, including those who know the site well. It succeeds in being wonderfully readable, though certain pages, with their “chaps” and “fiendishly difficult”, may make some readers feel that Professor Beard is talking down to them.

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