Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A city smothered in ash

     Pompeii At the ROM, Toronto, Ontario. A thorough presentation of the life and times of the doomed city, destroyed by Vesuvius’s eruption in 79CE. The show leaves one with two dominant impressions: that the Romans were very like us, and that they were very different from us. Like us they wanted comfort and convenience, and liked to display their wealth and power. They had developed a material and civic culture that guaranteed a relatively safe and pleasant life for most citizens. That culture was sustained by slaves, who did much of the work that nowadays is done by or with the help of machines. Human and animal energy was cheap. The wealthier citizens even had laid-on indoor plumbing, via pipes from the nearest communal fountain. Their sewage systems weren’t quite as well done as ours, though. And because heating water was (and still is) energy-expensive, baths were a communal affair.
     The houses show that family life was very important. It’s not just the family shrines to ancestors and gods, it’s the layout of the rooms, organised around an atrium with a pool that collected rainwater, and backing on an enclosed private garden. The owners decorated the walls with murals, laid out mosaic pictures in their floors, and had statuettes and statues all over the place. There’s a lovely example of a multi-tiered oil lamp, each tier with four twin lamps, so that there were a dozen lights in all. It must have made quite a show. Of course, these are upper-middle class and upper class houses. The lower classes lived in flimsy wooden hovels, or rooms in flimsy wooden apartment blocks.
     The plaster casts of the hollows formed by the Pompeians who died and were covered with ash show that many of them tried to save each other. Nobody knows how many of the 12,000 inhabitants died. The eruption was a multi-stage affair; it was the last stage that blasted the top off Vesuvius and covered the city with ash and pumice. Some people escaped before the worst happened; those who stayed, I suppose believing that it was just another Vesuvian belly rumble, were caught.
     How were the Romans different from us? They were more matter-of-factly brutal, enjoying the spectacles of men and beasts fighting and killing each other. They were more practical about sex, painting erotic scenes in their bedrooms and in brothels. Religion was part of the fabric of everyday life. Public religion supported the civil society; private religion satisfied the longing for personal significance and meaning. Cults flourished. One of them was Christianity, a fact that is discreetly ignored in this show, even though Nero a few years later used Christians as scapegoats and foci of civil envy and unrest. Maybe there weren’t many Christians in Pompeii.
     Rank, and the client-culture it fostered and depended on, was stronger than today. Public works were undertaken by private citizens as signifiers of status or piety, and to curry political favour with the local electors or the powers in Rome. Politics was already violent: the Augustans came to power through wholesale murder of their opponents. There was no civil service, which would have stabilised Roman governance. The Empire devolved into a kleptocracy, a thug-state ruled by a small clique of infighting sociopaths. That’s what eventually destroyed it.
     But at the time of Pompeii’s destruction, life was still safe for most people, until the mountain blew up. I read almost all the explanations, something I rarely do, but had to skip them towards the end. I recommend a full day to see and absorb it. If you’re a ROM member, go more than once. ****

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