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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town Hardcover – 18 Sep 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; First Edition edition (18 Sept. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861975163
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861975164
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.6 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 317,064 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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How exciting to have this perfect vademecum - another word for a guidebook, as all you Latin scholars will know, or literally, a "go-with-me". (Harry Mount Independent on Sunday)

[a] brilliant portrait of "the life of a Roman town"... [a] wonderful book. (James McConnachie Sunday Times)

Beard's cheerful scepticism makes her Pompeii more intriguing, more believable, than any version I have read. (Christian Tyler FT)

A vivid demonstration that sceptical scholarship can provide as gripping a read as sensationalism... a learned and fascinating book. (Tom Holland Guardian 2008-09-20)

Such verve and such mesmerising detail...A work of punctilious and scholarly devotion. (Ian Thomson Evening Standard 2008-09-22)

A vivid and engaging portrait of this enigmatic and historically important town (Clover Stroud Sunday Telegraph 2008-09-14)

Fresh and original, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town makes history come alive (Daily Express)

Dynamically, wittily and authoritatively brings the ancient world to life (Simon Sebag Montefiore Standard 2008-11-17)

The book begins in darkness with desperate fugitives attempting to outrun the deadly flow. It ends with a practical guide to viewing the site, right down to tipping the lavatory attendants ... It is an odd justaposition, but an inspired one. Few could resist a visit having read Mary Beard's compelling account. (Elizabeth Speller Independent 2008-10-03)

What Mary Beard , one of the most distinguished Roman historians in the English-speaking world, has given us here is a delightfully readable account ... [She] has the facility for bringing all [the] characters to life ...without sacrificing scholarly accuarcy. (John Dillon Irish Times 2008-09-20)

Her intelligence is ever alert, probing, questioning accepted stereotypes. She has the scepticism proper to the true historian. She repeatedly offers pithy and illuminating judgements. ... This is a fascinating book. (Alan Massie Literary Review 2008-10-10)

I'm tempted to say if you read one book of history this year it should be Pompeii. Not just because it is written with a rare mixture of scrupulous scholarship and a relaxed conversational narrative drive - Beard seems actually to like her readers, which is rare among serious scholars - but becuase Pompeii itself matters. (Michael Bywater New Statesman 2008-09-22)

My advice? Buy this book before you go - all trips to Pompeii, armchair or actual, will be inordinately enhanced. (Bettany Hughes Times 2008-10-18)

A forensic adventure through the back alleys and the mansions of a dead city, checking the beds, the looms, the loos, what time the carts rolled in the streets, what was for breakfast and the politics going down in the Forum ... a proper detcitive story ... a wonder (Michael Pye Scotsman 2008-09-20)

She makes the dead of Pompeii spring to life. (Raymond Carr Spectator 2008-09-13)

This is ancient history as it should be written and the invaluable companion to any trip to Pompeii. (Giles Foden Conde Nast Traveller 2008-10-04)

Much of what you think you know about Pompeii may turn out, on reading this eye-opening book, to be wrong. ...Beard always wears her learning lightly, and in this outstanding book she has excelled herself ...gripping (Andrew Holgate Sunday Times (Christmas Books Roundup) 2008-11-30)

Mary Beard is a wonderful and amusing companion and explainer. If you ever go to Pompeii, read this first. (Boris Johnson Irish Mail on Sunday 2009-01-04)


Beard's cheerful scepticism makes her Pompeii more intriguing, more believable, than any version I have read.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

99 of 103 people found the following review helpful By P. Mullan on 22 Sept. 2008
Format: Hardcover
Professor Beard tells the tale of ancient Pompeii in a highly readable and authoritative way. Drawing from the work of historians and archaeologists present and past she transports the reader back to Pompeii's last days. Along the way assumptions are challenged about the number of brothels, or the date of the volcanic explosion which condemned the town into a memory. Wheel ruts and the rules of the road come alive. I suspect that a visit to Pompeii will never be the same again.
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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful By I. G. Lennox on 22 Sept. 2008
Format: Hardcover
There has always been, since the first discovery, conflict over the meaning of the archeological findings. Some texts are more rigid than others, for example the splendidly illustrated 'Complete Pompeii' by Berry. This new volume has a more laid back approach and all, or at least most, of ones long set assumptions are questioned. So, this is not a guide to carry round the site but a superb contemplation of how life in the town might have been, Like the "Triumph', Prof. Beard shakes the established ideas and stimulates. I found it hard to put down.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Jon Chambers VINE VOICE on 30 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Robert Harris' best-selling novel 'Pompeii' convincingly put flesh on the bones of the town's inhabitants. Mary Beard's historical survey does the same for the town itself.

Beard is careful to avoid distortion through over-simplification. She takes pains to stress, for example, that the reality of Pompeii's story is not the clichéd one of a town 'frozen in time' but a more complex and fascinating one altogether. First, she explains that many inhabitants upped sticks well before the fateful day in August 79, taking their treasures with them. Secondly, townspeople and looters alike had plenty of opportunity to salvage/steal valuables after the eruption. And thirdly, much of what we see today is, in fact, reconstruction - almost all of the upper levels of Pompeian buildings for a start. All of these things, together with 'aggressive restoration', Allied bombing and erosion mean that what we see today is far from the sealed capsule that time-travellers hope for.

Beard's Pompeii is an up to the minute account drawing upon much fascinating research - on studies of wheel ruts gouged into the town's shiny black-bouldered streets, for example, which indicate complex one-way traffic systems. Or of plaster casts of plant roots which help to identify crops.

Perhaps Beard's greatest gift is a no-nonsense directness that often cuts through academic over-speculation. For instance, following a discussion of what anthropologists call 'zoning' (in which sectors of a town are associated with particular functions or degrees of affluence), she concludes: 'the simple truth is that Pompeii was without the zoning we have come to expect.'

As ever, Beard's style is highly readable and her book is therefore as valuable to the general reader as to the student. Pompeii is exhilarating and unique. It has found the book it deserves.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By bookelephant on 11 Dec. 2009
Format: Paperback
I don't like Mary Beard's "A don's life" column and I approached this book with reluctance and a degree of negativity. However I was completely wowed by it. I am not sure that I have ever read a book where depth of knowledge has been worn so lightly or communicated so refreshingly as if there was no imbalance between reader and writer. Put it this way, the book reads as if Mary Beard wants to explain to her friends the fascinations and frustrations of trying to work out what Pompeii was like. So we get the most beautiful vignettes of life as deduced from the ruins - and a wonderfully honest explanation of just how much has to be guessed, and how other interpretations could fit the facts. These two points combined are for me the real strengths of the book. I had previously read works where the various houses and their inhabitants are described definitely, as if we could be sure who was where and what they did; and yet at the smae time the houses and the people failed to live. This book brings possible inhabitants and their interrelationships to life - but always honestly reminds you how very little about Pompeii we can know for certain. The result is that one feels that one has had the fullest possible introduction to what is known, and a sparkling picture of a likely Pompeii fixed in one's head. An absolute delight of a book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By IP TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 24 May 2015
Format: Paperback
The perfect companion for all Roman history enthusiasts is THE ROMA VICTRIX WINE BEAKERCalix Imperium, Roma Victrix Pewter wine beaker

This is this generation's best book on Pompeii; it's impossible to imagine visiting the site without having read it, and although it's not a guidebook, it does have a helpful appendix called "Making a Visit" that covers what to wear, how best to arrive, and which houses you'll probably be most interested in seeing. Mary Beard is a distinguished professor of classics at Cambridge, and she writes about Pompeii as though it were her life's work. What I appreciated most about the book were the complete lack of prudishness about the town's ubiquitous, licentious artwork--the frontispiece of my Folio Society edition is a detail of a mosaic showing a slave with genitals as big as his forearms--and the way Beard always takes pains, in a graceful way, to explain what we know, what we don't know, and the various ideas about what the truth might be. A lot of the stories the guidebooks tell you are probably wrong. She sets it straight.

The book is written very casually, without footnotes or unnecessary scholarly trappings. Occasionally it has a dashed-off quality that comes from quick writing (the same word repeated too soon, and the like), but that's a quibble. This is like getting a verbal tour of the site from a very smart friend who's lived a few miles away from it for twenty years. However, it's not a tour of the buildings and monuments so much as a peek into what the people were like, what they did for work and fun and what they seemed to care about.
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