Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, sending hot gases, pumice, and rivers of bubbling mud through the city of Pompeii. Over a thousand of the victims were preserved within the ash, as were buildings and artworks. Since it was first excavated centuries ago, Pompeii as "frozen in time" has had a real tourist appeal. You can walk the streets feeling that you are experiencing something close to what the Pompeians did two thousand years ago; such feelings are not baseless, but Pompeian life was drastically different from our own, and the clues the ruins give us about the people's lives are significant but often mysterious and even more often incomplete. Classicist Mary Beard is the perfect guide to the city, as it is now and as best as we can understand it before the eruption, and in _The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found_ (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), she has written a delightful, sometimes irreverent, guide to the city. Sure, it has plenty of scholarship attached; ancient texts and modern reports are referenced, and there is an amazing range of evidence (bones of humans, skeletons of animals, oyster shells, bracelets, spilled paint, and traffic barriers), but she writes in a relaxed, almost chatty way that ensures readers will enjoy the fun of the often strange details she has included.
Even those who have been to Pompeii themselves will have to adjust their imaginary pictures of life there. For instance, take Beard's description of the baths. We think of the baths as promoting the sort of cleanliness that we ourselves value, but if you find yourself time-machined back to Pompeii, you might want to avoid this sort of "cleanliness". There was, of course, no chlorination, and not even any proper filters. The water was not always replaced, and wounds bathed in them could turn gangrenous. Beard concludes that the baths "may have been a place of wonder, pleasure, and beauty for the humble Pompeian bather. They might also have killed him." The baths also had a seamy reputation; they were, after all, a place where people got nearly naked and pursued pleasure. The more famous site for sex was the brothel, one particular house in downtown Pompeii that everyone acknowledges as having been a brothel, but there may have been many others. One sign that some categorizers (and some tour guides within the city) proclaim as a mark of a brothel is a phallus pointing to it, but in Pompeii there are phalluses everywhere. The famous picture of the god Priapus weighing his hefty organ in scales against a money bag, Beard says, used to have a curtain over it, not in the Roman days, to be sure, but in the seventies when she first visited the place. You could ask for the curtain to be withdrawn; perhaps, now that there is no such curtain, moralists will say that we are descending into pagan immorality. But there would have to be a lot of such curtains: "There are phalluses greeting you in doorways, phalluses above bread ovens, phalluses carved into the surface of the street, and plenty more phalluses with bells on - and wings." Beard points out that we can't really be sure what all these wands were for, but that thinking of them as lucky charms (something like a horseshoe on a wall) might make them less naughty, but they still cannot avoid being sexual tokens.
Throughout, Beard illustrates the "Pompeii paradox": "We simultaneously know a huge amount and very little about ancient life there". We don't know much about the upper stories of buildings, since their ground floors and foundations survived while the upstairs did not. Did they keep their bedrooms up there, and where did the children stay, and how many lived in a house? We can tell that Pompeians played lots of different board games, and we have rulebooks for none. One game was called _latrunculi_, and of the many election posters reviewed here, one said that a candidate had the support of the _latrunculi_ players; was this sarcasm? Everyone who has visited Pompeii has seen the bars with large jars set in the counter, and guides give the impression that there was a bartender who ladled wine from them, but the jars are porous. They may have been filled instead with dry goods, like fruit or chick peas, so were they for bar snacks? And then there are the mysteries of the creedless Roman religion, which allowed hundreds of gods and goddesses, and accepted new ones regularly, and was based on animal sacrifice. Wandering the streets of Pompeii, one can feel that this is a livable town, almost like a modern one; but Beard's book provides the useful service of showing that however much we appreciate the recovered art and architecture of the ancient city, we have to appreciate also how vastly the culture differed from ours, and how difficult it is to interpret the archeological evidence that is available.