New Book Chronicle

By Hummler, Madeleine | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview

New Book Chronicle


Hummler, Madeleine, Antiquity


This chronicle begins around the Bay of Naples, in the company of books exploring Pompeii and its surroundings. We then return to Britain for a round-up of books on British pre- and protohistory, a number of them published by Tempus, now the History Press.

Pompeii and Pompeiana

MARY BEARD. Pompeii: the life of a Roman town. viii+360 pages, 114 illustrations, 23 colour plates. 2008. London: Profile Books; 978-1-861975-516-4 hardback 25 [pounds sterling].

PENELOPE M. ALLISON. The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii, Volume 3: the finds, a contextual analysis. xlvi+504 pages, 83 figures, 132 plates. 2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-926312-7 hardback 195 [pounds sterling].

MARINA CIARALDI. People & plants in ancient Pompeii: a new approach to urbanism from the microscope room (Accordia Specialist Studies on Italy Volume 12). 183 pages, 75 illustrations, 17 tables. 2007. London: Accordia Research Institute, University of London; 978-1-873415-30-6 paperback.

CAROL C. MATTUSH. Pompeii and the Roman villa: art and culture around the Bay of Naples, xviii+366 pages, 250 colour & b&w illustrations. 2008. London: Thames & Hudson; 978-0-500-51436-8 hardback 30 [pounds sterling].

VICTORIA C. GARDNER COATES & JON L. SEYDL (ed.). Antiquity recovered: the legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum. viii+296 pages, 123 b&w & colour illustrations. 2007. Los Angeles (CA): J. Paul Getty Museum; 978-0-89236-872-3 hardback 40 [pounds sterling].

Pompeii and Pompeiana

Mary Beard's Pompeii, the life of a Roman town is a cracking good read. Her book is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers, as she expertly answers the question 'What was it like?' Although she pays due attention to the high art that made Pompeii famous the world over, and the patrons who commissioned it, she is more interested in the ordinary people who make up the city. She paints a picture of a bustling Mediterranean commercial city, an 'ordinary place' (p. 45) much like modern Naples, peopled by patricians and small folk going about their business: a city where public baths are a hotbed of nasty infections, whose citizens exhale a distinct 'whiff of halitosis', have to cope with 'traffic calming schemes, loiterers and litter', eat 'on the wing' in fast food outlets and whose wealth is owed in part to the production of garum 'a truly stinking concoction' (p. 185) produced by 'nouveaux riches who made their fortune on rotten fish' (p. 187).

She is particularly good at debunking myths, starting with that of a 'city frozen in time': although not the first to question the Pompeii premise, she is right to insist, since it has such a hold on the public and academics alike; it is a load of cobblers, a combination of 'voyeurism, pathos and ghoulish prurience' mixed with the illusion of 'immediate contact with the ancient world' (p. 7). Not only was the city in the course of permanent and major refurbishment--again an image familiar to visitors of modern Naples--between the earthquake of AD 62 and the fatal eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, but also the inhabitants of the city had time to collect their belongings in the period immediately preceding the catastrophe. Thus the assemblages recovered within the houses of Pompeii from the mid eighteenth century onwards must be treated with great caution. Yet, though Mary Beard rightly points out that there is a lot we do not know, there is still a wealth of detail which can be followed up in the extensive further notes at the end of the book--assembled here, skilfully woven together and told most engagingly (see for example the lively soundscape evoked on p. 80).

The curate behaviour displayed at Pompeii, coupled with the fact that many areas of the city were disturbed after the eruption, make the reconstruction of a whole insula a difficult task. This is attempted in PENELOPE ALLISON'S finds report on The Insula of the Menander, a hefty scholarly tome published in 2006, volume 3 of the British Pompeii Project which started in 1978 (volumes 1, 2 and 4, on the structures, the decorations and the silver treasure appeared between 1997 and 2005).

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