Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum: sex, death and some very burnt toast

It’s a sunny Italian morning, and I am standing in a small bakery in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. There’s what looks like a typical Neapolitan pizza oven in one wall designed, in this case, for baking bread. In another part of the room stand four huge stone mills, only one of them intact. On one wall, there is a pin–up not dissimilar to the kind you might find in any busy commercial kitchen, although it’s a painting not a poster, and the subject is a naked Venus admiring herself in a mirror. There will be no bread sold here today. Indeed, the bakery produced its last loaf, before all baking was suddenly suspended, 1,934 years ago, in AD 79.

That was, of course, the year in which the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were obliterated by a volcanic eruption – which was extremely bad luck for them, and extraordinarily good fortune for future archaeologists. Nowhere else were whole communities conserved like this: houses, possessions, livestock and often the inhabitants themselves remain, millennia later, under a layer of ash and stone from Vesuvius. Later this week, the British Museum opens what promises to be a phenomenal exhibition, dedicated to investigating what everyday existence was really like in these ancient Roman towns.

On show will be an extraordinary array of objects including frescoes and sculptures (both beautiful and obscene), furniture – carbonised but preserved in astonishing detail – and the huddled plaster casts of human and animal victims of the disaster. There will also be a carbonised loaf of bread from Herculaneum, almost 2,000 years past its sell–by date, as well as a selection of classical chamber pots, tableware and gardening equipment.

The exhibition is curated by Paul Roberts, the museum’s head of Roman collections, and a man whose enthusiasm and curiosity about Roman life is palpable. Taking me around the ancient sites, he finds fresh interest in each object or location we stumble across. In the bakery, for example, he immediately sees a series of clues that bring the ancient disaster very close, but also complicate the situation.

Those mills, it turns out, tell a complex story about the terrible fate that befell the whole city. The evidence suggests that at the time of the eruption three out of the bakery’s four mills were already out of action. Roman sources describe an earthquake that hit the area 17 years earlier, but a big bakery such as this wouldn’t be three–quarters out of action for the best part of two decades. Close examination reveals that the millstones have already been repeatedly repaired.

“So,” Roberts suggests, “you can imagine a series of earthquakes, including dozens of minor ones. All the time people’s daily lives were being interrupted by tremors.”

Evidently, the city of Pompeii had been living in a state of low–key crisis for years. There was plenty of warning that something was going on, although the ancient inhabitants had no notion that Vesuvius might still be active. Many people evidently left; others – just as we see in the case of modern–day hurricanes and floods – stubbornly elected to sit it out. Some could not escape.

Among the last were the unfortunate animals that constituted the bakery’s power–supply: seven assorted horses, donkeys or mules (DNA evidence is ambivalent), the bones of which are still there in a pathetic and grisly huddle. These pulled round the mills, and probably also delivered the finished product. Two had got out of their stable, at the back of the bakery, another five were still in the stall. They had been buried in a shower of lapilli – small stones – that rained down at a rate of six to nine inches an hour, finally filling this building, and the adjoining one up to the lower part of the third floor.

This was then followed by deadly waves of what was known as pyroclastic flow: superheated avalanches of volcanic ash travelling at 70 miles an hour. The pyroclastic flow had knocked the tops of the bakery walls clean off. Ancient sources date the main, catastrophic eruption to August 24 AD 79, but various pieces of evidence suggest that it might have been later, in early autumn. One of these was the donkey’s feed, which contained not only oats and broad beans, but also some vegetation you wouldn’t expect to find in August.

Just behind the bakery is the House of the Painters at Work. Archaeologists have been giving the dwellings they discovered fanciful names since excavations began at Pompeii in the 18th century, since in very few cases is there any indication of the name of the ancient owner. In this one, uncovered recently and still not open to the public, artists were interrupted – as you might have guessed – in the middle of creating elaborate and beautiful paintings of flying cupids, mythological scenes and trompe-l’oeil architecture.

A bucket of fresh plaster spattered one wall, there are signs the team of painters simply downed brushes and ran – if not on the day of the eruption, then after one of the tremors shortly before.

There must have been armies of artists in ancient Roman cities, because one of the most striking things about Pompeii and Herculaneum is that there is art – both sculpture and painting – everywhere, not just in wealthy houses but on the walls of bars and takeaway restaurants. One fresco in the exhibition comes from a Pompeian lavatory, showing the goddess Isis–Fortuna, the personification of luck. It bears a timely warning: “S––––––, beware the Evil Eye!”.

In the House of the Painters at Work there is also a fine dining room, with a courtyard garden just outside its door, its angled holes suggesting trellis work, and evidence of box and evergreens, lilies, irises and a water channel running around the border.

All of this – garden, frescoes, grand dining room – was partly at least to impress the neighbours, as Roberts expounds: “In modern Italy you have the idea of la bella figura, the Romans were exactly the same in that respect. It’s a matter of how you present yourself, setting the scene, so about your money and power. The Romans were all about power, pretty much.”

Eating was a big thing in Roman life (little has changed over two millennia in that respect). Rich inhabitants of the two towns made elaborate arrangements for entertaining their guests. The British Museum show will include ancient dining and drinking accessories, including a table decorated with lion heads found in Herculaneum, where – like many other wooden objects – it was preserved by being buried under a shower of volcanic ash at 400C, which had the effect of cooking it slowly into a charcoal version of the original wooden item.

The Roman dining room was known as a triclinium because ideally it would contain three couches arranged for guests to recline upon. “That’s where you bring them for a lovely meal of a summer’s evening, and impress them with your food and wine, beautiful music and the decoration.”

By no means every Pompeian could afford this kind of ostentatious luxury, but there were cheaper alternatives. Standing beside the stable in the bakery there was a substitute for the less well–off, a dining room for hire (or, at least, archaeologists suspect from its position behind the ovens and next to the stable that it was not for private use). On its walls are splendid frescoes, in the process of being renewed, perhaps to repair recent earthquake damage.

This dining room has given the whole bakery building its name: The House of the Chaste Lovers. The scenes, suitably enough, are of people, not so much dining as in post–prandial mode, drinking heavily and in some cases distinctly the worse for wear. Two embracing drunkenly in the painting are, as Roberts explains, “supposed to be exchanging a chaste kiss. That is to say, chaste in comparison to some paintings you will see on the walls of Pompeii”.

The ancient Pompeians – unlike modern Italians, but quite like contemporary Brits – had a drinking culture. The streets of Pompeii were lined with bars and fast–food outlets. Frescoes of banquets always represent imbibing rather than eating – perhaps because it was the most enjoyable bit, and led quite often it seems to sex in the triclinium. We do, however, now know that before they got drunk, Pompeians ate rather healthily, consuming plenty of sea food and vegetables. A mass of information about the local diet has recently been obtained from analysis of the contents of a sewer in Herculaneum.

Next on the list of entertainments after eating and drinking was heavy petting, and after that perhaps an orgy. The ancient Romans were extremely uninhibited about the depiction of sex, which was graphically represented all over the place, not only in the one building in Pompeii definitely identified as a brothel (scholarly estimates of up to 34 others in Pompeii alone are probably much exaggerated). The entire town is covered with carvings and paintings of phalluses, some – such as a hanging, winged phallus lamp – bizarre enough to interest Salvador Dalí. ]

Roman art can be startlingly explicit even to a blasé, modern eye. On display in the exhibition will be a carving from the garden of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum showing, in alarming clarity, the god Pan engaged in intercourse with a goat. This may bring some visitors closer to the reality of Roman decor than they would wish to be. But it is also another illustration of the paradox of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A rich and cultured Roman (possibly Julius Caesar’s father–in–law) put this in his garden along with a superb array of bronze sculpture that fills several rooms of the Naples Museum. What did he really think about it? Was it, as Roberts suggests, intended to be humorous? Perhaps. But as so often, the more we find out about the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the more we discover we don’t know. In many ways, the ancient Romans were just like us; in others, they remain as strange and mysterious as ever.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

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