Book Review: The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost & Found.

NOTE: A review of a book reflects the quality and capacity of the reviewer more than that of the book or the author thereof. It reflects the knowledge, ability to grasp, maturity to appreciate, personal nuances and upbringing of the reviewer. Thus, this review is subjective to the above mentioned constraints.

Or in one simple sentence: The following are my personal views.

The Fires of VesuviusI read this book, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost & Found by Mary Beard, as a challenge by The Sunday Book Club (@TSBookClub) to read and review for the month of January of 2015.

When I received this book, I casually and cautiously sifted through the book, I was apprehensive and was at unease by the history-textbook-like feel of the book (being rather poor in history at school). But despite it being a (Harvard) University Press publication, it is very well written to satisfy a novice casual reader (like me) as well as any serious enthusiast of history or archaeology. It is like a guided tour of the city of Pompeii told with a lot of wit, deep insight and common sense. The author has remained quite apathetic to the subject in a positive sense of the word. She has remained unassuming and non-committal, cheekily busting the myths of wishful thinking social historians, archaeologists and theologians down the years.

The book is primarily about the “pyroclastic surge” of Mount Vesuvius, circa August, 79 CE that swept the ancient city of Pompeii completely off the face of Earth. It was a catastrophe so severe and so sudden that hardly anyone fled. The boiling lava covered the city with the blanket of death, turning the inhabitants into stone, ironically frozen in time, though not forever, as the “lost” city was “found” almost 1800 years later, largely and surprisingly intact.

One thing which is quite horrific is the level to which the people of Pompeii, things and buildings remained preserved for almost 20 centuries. The people of Pompeii have an expression of surprise and fear on their faces.

“A slave hampered by the iron bands around his ankles, trying to flee,” “a rich woman kneeling, her adultery exposed to the gaze of history,” “a nine-months pregnant teenager with bones of her child (intact) in her abdomen,” ¬†“a dog chained trying to get free of it,” “hitched up tunics, muffled faces and grim expressions of the victims.”

But to imagine the book is about the ruins of the natural disaster would certainly be a grave mistake. This book is about the city of Pompeii before it was “lost” in time based on the excavations after it is “found” in the ruins. It is a book rich with images of the city. Pompeii takes us closest to the daily life of Romans at the zenith of the Roman Empire.

The book is divided into various sections talking in vivid details about the history of the old city of Pompeii, from 6th Century BCE leading up to 79 CE, the architecture, with different types of houses based on the prosperity and social status of the owner. Their street life, where unlike today, the rich ate at home and poor ate out. Their vehicles, chariots and carts with wooden wheels and one-way roads mostly open to access after dark. Their fashion, their marketplace, abundant with cafes, brothels, bakeries and banks. How they decorated their walls with paintings and floors with mosaics, mostly of epic Greek war scenes and gods. The graffiti and notices on the outside walls, some advertising some product, other canvassing for the upcoming elections. It talks about how effective was their governance and sustainability of their economy, their relation with Rome and social hierarchies. Their passions (good and bad) and their indulgences to wine and sex, prostitution, homosexuality and slave trade. Their cruel gladiatorial games as leisure. Their religion and spirituality, Pompeii was a city full of gods.

This book is indeed full of surprises about a city boasting of a surprise at every corner. Excavators found a mosaic of Alexander’s moment of glory made of a colossal 3-5 million small coloured tiles in one house to a ivory statuette of Indian Goddess Laxmi in another. It was a city with running water system with water towers and fountains (around 40 of them) scattered all over the city. (bewildering when you consider it is still not developed in most of the 21st Century India). City of Pompeii must have resembled modern city of Venice (going by the evidence found) at least in the season of rains. Ironically, ruined by the flowing fire in those same streets, pausing it in time for us to crack the shell and peep.

The author has marvelously worked like a detective logically deducing her way through the confusing maze of bibliography, walking the tightrope of common sense holding the facts high like a torch in the darkness accentuated by the Centuries of myths and legends.

I am ever so thankful to The Sunday Book Club for introducing me to this book of wonders.

“Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out heaven.” – Book of Genesis

“It was but one Great Blast and they were extinct.” The Holy Qur’an 36:29

“We sent a Single Blast against them and they were just like a thatcher’s reeds.” The Holy Qur’an 54:37

The believer’s may take heed.