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on 22 September 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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VINE VOICEon 30 August 2009
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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on 22 September 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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on 11 December 2009
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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on 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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on 12 August 2016
Mary Beard is amazing whether she is presenting a TV show, Tweeting, or writing anything. After reading "SPQR", I had to pick up "Pompeii" because I knew going in that it would be a highly informative and entertaining look at the lives of the people in this doomed, ancient city.

Rather than dwell on the eruption and the dead, Beard focuses on the life that filled the streets of Pompeii. We learn how the Pompeiians lived, loved, worshipped, ate, played and survived. When something is not known, we learn that it is not known without attachment to any one theory, which is always refreshing. There is never a dry moment in this insightful, sometimes touching, and sometimes hilarious book. With a smooth and highly engaging narrative, we get pictures that are stories in and of themselves.

The only downside, and this is cheesy but true - I didn't want the book to end. I tried to put it down over the last day or so just so that I could linger in this beautifully painted world, but I ended up going right back to it. It hardly needs saying that I recommend this book.
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on 31 December 2013
Mary Beard's smooth, fluent, down to earth writing style makes this book thoroughly readable. Although the material is presented in a very scholarly way, which evaluates mounds of primary evidence and does not shy away from the difficulties surrounding its interpretation, the book is anything but dry. Beard has a way of bringing the town to life. She notes small but significant details which truly allow you to build a picture of what life was like in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. In parts of the book you really do feel like you are walking the streets of ancient Pompeii, but at the same time you have the benefit of Beard's thorough knowledge of ancient Rome to help you contextualize and interpret the experience. This book is simply brilliant. Popular history at its best - scholarly enough to pass muster in the eyes of any academic, but totally accessible to the average reader.
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on 6 January 2016
I have to put it out there and say that I've just read a book about Rome by Mary Beard, loved it, and therefore rushed straight to another of her works. I've been to Pompeii, a good while ago, so figured it would be good to read about things again. This really is a great book. Written in a very accessible way and yet based on evidence rather than, 'Well, it was probably like this'. Discussion was about the way that the Pompeians lived and died. I had always thought that Pompeii was a classic example of Roman life. In actuality, Pompeii had been affected by a significant earthquake a number of years prior to its complete destruction by Vesuvius so it may have been very poorly populated and not in the best of shape. The evidence is though still there such that Ms Beard helps us understand the way people lived, died, worked and much more. A wonderful informative, accessible, interesting book. Highly recommended.
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Mary Beard here tackles the tale of Pompeii, that most famous of destroyed towns. Being a classicist and not an archaeologist as such she obviously comes to the area with a slightly different and it must be admitted fresh look. I am glad that she is at times quite cynical of what some archaeologists claim, after all a lot of us sit in front of our tellies watching programmes where a piece of supposed pottery is held up and a mass of claims about it are made. And as we all know some of these are pretty extravagant.

Trying to cut through what is and isn’t known, as well as what most likely can be conjectured this does make for an interesting read, and is ideal for anyone thinking of making the trip to Pompeii (there is some advice about this at the rear), and reminds us that for some things we are best off visiting the museum in Naples as well.

Trying to piece together what life was like in this most famous of towns does at times prove tricky as this clearly shows and there are some things that we know more about than others, and with help from what we know from other places some further detail can be added.

This isn’t a hard read, indeed I whizzed through it and there are two sections of glossy illustrations in colour as well as the text being littered with illustrations in black and white, meaning that this is quite visual in total, and adds a bit more depth to what you are reading about. Trying to tell a story of a town and its people from so long ago is no easy task but this book does create a fascinating story in the process, as it tackles food, entertainment, business, religion and so on.
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on 6 September 2014
This is a beautifully written book, in which the author's considerable body of learning is deployed clearly and accesibly to describe what is known, and not known, about life in Pompeii. I particularly like the way she flags up problems with, and deficiences in, the available evidence - even-handedly and so lucidly that the general reader can follow with ease. It is also well-illustrated: figures appear near to the relevant texts, and it is made plain when nineteenth century copies of paintings now too damaged to see clearly are being show. Smashing book; lovely stylist.
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