Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum: Life and death

British Museum, 28 March - 29 September 2013

Marble relief showing Bacchus and his followers, Pompeii.
From the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Insights into the daily life of a culture that remains the foundation of Western civilisation, but limited on the terrible paradox that this is one of the few slave societies that have existed.

Not so long ago, at least the popular image of ancient Rome was one of clean white marble, white togas, and fringe haircuts. We can thank the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum for giving us a more colourful, bawdy version of the period.

Pompeii had a population of around 15,000, or the same as the admittedly large village of Kidlington, outside Oxford. Herculaneum was about a third the size. Comparatively, Rome itself at the time of Vesuvius erupting may have had a population of a million or more, so a decent city even by our standards now.

So as an urban centre, we shouldn't expect too much of what we find in these 'towns'. It makes sense for the curators of this fascinating exhibition to focus on what the archaeological evidence tells us about daily urban life, rather than the artistic quality of the early Roman Empire.

That said, some of the art here is impressive. The marble reliefs in particular are classical in the best, old-fashioned sense. And the portraits, in either 2 or 3 dimensions, are wonderful. On the other hand, perhaps because frescoes can't be imported, and have to be made in situ, the examples here are understandably uninspiring.

It's still something of a magical exhibition, partly recreating a large town house in Pompeii within the beautiful neoclassicism of the old British Library reading room, parts of which can be seen above as spectators walk around.

Presumably the town house is just that - the residence for a wealthy family in town. Perhaps they would have owned large tracts of rural farmland, and may have spent much of their time in a larger rural villa.

Otherwise, the townhouse here would seem small for a decent sized family, especially given the large number of slaves that were required. With this rural hinterland in mind, the part-garden, part-house layout becomes explicable, not to mention the shopfront that had to be passed through in order to reach the central atrium.

The visit is enlivened by sexually explicit garden furniture, a statue of Hercules drunk, and ribald toilet graffiti. This might lead us to think the ancient Romans were less prudish than us, but as the curators point out, they rarely enjoyed privacy, with slaves always present.

This aspect - the omnipresence of slavery - is necessarily downplayed in this show. I can't easily see how to convey that sense, nor the horrifying implications of it in terms of demand for slaves.

So while the exhibition helps us take a further step away from the image of ancient Romans as dignified elder geniuses, it still doesn't embed us within the slave society. Any attempt to really show the daily life in the period must tackle this problem head-on, and for this reason we still get only a partial view here.

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