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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town [Paperback]

Mary Beard
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
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Book Description

16 July 2009

Pompeii explodes a number of myths - from the very date of the eruption, probably a few months later than usually thought; the hygiene of the baths which must have been hotbeds of germs; and the legendary number of brothels, most likely only one, to the massive death count which was probably less than ten per cent of the population.

Street Life, Earning a Living: Baker, Banker and Garum Maker (who ran the city), The Pleasure of the Body: Food, Wine, Sex and Baths, these chapter headings give a surprising insight into the workings of a Roman town. At the Suburban Baths we go from communal bathing to hygiene to erotica. A fast-food joint on the Via dell' Abbondanza introduces food and drink and diets and street life. These are just a few of the strands that make up an extraordinary and involving portrait of an ancient town, its life and its continuing re-discovery, by Britain's leading classicist.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (16 July 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861975961
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861975966
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 9,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


The world's most controversial classicist debunks our movie-style myths about the Roman town with meticulous scholarship and propulsive energy...Scrutinising and animated in equal measure (Laura Silverman Daily Mail 2009-07-17)

A thoroughly worthy winner of the 2008 Wolfson History Prize, Mary Beard's bedroom-to-boardroom tour of the life of a Roman town is disgracefully enjoyable for such a deeply learned and sceptically debunking book (Boyd Tonkin Independent 2009-07-17)

This marvellous book won the Wolfson History Prize and is a model of subtle but accessible writing about the past (Judith Rice Guardian 2009-07-11)

[A] brilliant portrait...This meticulous, vivid study of life in the town, the winner of the 2008 Wolfson History Prize, rightly and resolutely focuses on the living city (James McConnachie Sunday Times 2009-07-12)

Classicist Mary Beard has had a great time rooting about that ghostly place and she has brought it quite splendidly back to life (Nicholas Bagnall Sunday Telegraph 2009-07-12)

To the vast field of Pompeiana she brings the human touch...This absorbing, inquisitive and affectionate account of Pompeii is a model of its kind. Beard has caught the quick of what was and, in our lives today, remains the same (Ross Leckie The Times 2009-07-04)

Very readable and excellently researched... Beard's clear-sighted and accessible style makes this a compelling look into history (Alexander Larman The Observer 2009-07-05)

If you want to know what really happened in the last days of the petrified city, Beard's meticulous reconstruction will fill you in, scraping away many of your preconceptions as it goes, while her evocative writing will transport you back (Guardian Best Holiday Books)

Wonderful piece of scholarship worn lightly and wittily (Tom Widger Sunday Tribune 2009-07-05)

Wittily written...evoking in all who read it the insatiable need to see the town for themselves (Georgie Durkheim Catholic Herald 2009-06-26)

A myth-breaking expedition, grandiose in scale, vibrant in its telling (Colin Gardiner Oxford Times)

Engaging and defiantly otherworldly (Business Destinations)

A learned and fascinating book (Guardian)

In this brilliant portrait of the "life in a Roman town", Mary Beard uses the relics buried by the eruption on AD79 to bring everyday Roman culture alive.' (Sunday Times)

Compelling (Independent)


`A myth-breaking expedition, grandiose in scale, vibrant in its telling' - Colin Gardiner, Oxford Times

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
93 of 97 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time Travel back to 79AD 22 Sep 2008
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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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Changing views of Pompeii 22 Sep 2008
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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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time-travellers beware 30 Aug 2009
By Jon Chambers VINE VOICE
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb - scholarship and readability combined 11 Dec 2009
By bookelephant TOP 1000 REVIEWER
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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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town 17 April 2009
This book arrived just after I had started reading another book on a World War II subject. Being hugely interested in all things Roman Empire I couldn't resist starting "Pompeii" and have not been able to put it down ever since. WWII will have to wait until I have finished it. Having visited Pompeii twice in the last few years and, armed with this newly acquired information from Mary Beard's well written tome, I cannot wait to go there again soon. She dispels a lot of myths with intelligent theories of her own. Highly recommended to fans of all things ancient Rome!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great insight 8 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a fabulous book. I recently went to the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum and have also visited Pompeii twice. Reading this really takes you behind the scenes and allows you to really imagine life in Pompeii.

Highly recommended
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and easy to read 15 May 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Well written interesting makes me want to go to Pompeii.
Illustrations do not work well on a Kindle, which is a shame
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Published 8 days ago by mr m c cox
4.0 out of 5 stars Mary Beard combines (up to date) scholarship with good writing and a...
Mary Beard combines (up to date) scholarship with good writing and a sense of fun. She conjures up as accurate a picture of life in the town as we can currently support with... Read more
Published 10 days ago by Peter Winstanley
3.0 out of 5 stars I quite enjoyed this book
I quite enjoyed this book, but perhaps Pompeii has been too much written about and is suffering from overload, I finished it but somewhat of a struggle, could be the author's... Read more
Published 13 days ago by antmo
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Very engaging writing covering a hugely interesting subject.
Published 24 days ago by Mr Paul Stevenson
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable academic "CSI:Pompeii"
Beard opens by challenging the notion that Pompeii was simply a normal city simply 'frozen in time'. Read more
Published 27 days ago by C. Young
5.0 out of 5 stars What a joy to read and so informative
What a joy to read and so informative. I'm not sure what gives me the most pleasure - watching and listening to Mary Beard on TV or reading her books. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Philip Newth
5.0 out of 5 stars Romans and their lives
Excellent - not too academic and informative at every level
Published 1 month ago by michael mcadam
5.0 out of 5 stars Really like it. I watched the TV programme and so ...
Really like it. I watched the TV programme and so I know what it was going to be like. Excellent book from a really knowledgeable academic who make it all so accessible.
Published 1 month ago by Oriana
5.0 out of 5 stars Myth-busting and readable
I thoroughly enjoyed his book. mary Beard offers fresh perspective on Pompeii and disagrees with many of the myths that surround this era. An informative yet entertaining read.
Published 2 months ago by heather444
5.0 out of 5 stars Mary Beard knows her stuff
Mary takes you to the heart. She is as good as her TV programme about Pompeii. She makes you want to visit the site.
Published 3 months ago by Jigsaw
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