Pompeii: It’s a story which almost everybody knows, an eruption of such violent magnitude that it has fascinated writers, artists, poets and film-makers throughout the ages, making it a volcanic event more famous than any other. But the reason why Pompeii is so famous is not because of the eruption that destroyed a city in AD79, but because of the ghost of the city that was left behind. For beneath the ashes, the pumice and the multiple strata of volcanic material emerges the perfect footprint of a true Roman town, that gives us a compelling glimpse into the world of ancient Rome, its town planning, society and its people.
Today’s Pompeii is deeply romantic. The remnants of this ancient world, cast in semi-dereliction but clinging onto mere glimpses of its fully resplendent past, are tinged with the melancholia of the romantic imagination, as weeds and wildflowers grown amongst rubble and the remains of once grand palaces and temples. It all feels rather like a idyllic pastiche from an 18th century imagined landscape… one half expects a giggling maid to sweep into the scene on a flower-strung swing tied onto a nearby tree, her rococo dress shimmering in the setting sun.
Yet beneath the beauty of decay lies a far sadder truth – the reality of Pompeii’s end. Time is healer, but we should not forget how the people of Pompeii met their end: in an agony of excruciating burning and suffocation as the scalding gases of a pyroclastic surge swept through the town literally boiling people to death. It would have been a truly horrific way to die. Reminders of this cruel ending are all around in Pompeii: figures cast from plaster and created from the vacuum left in layers of volcanic ash as bodies have withered away demonstrate people contorted in pain, their hands rolled into tight fists as their bodies flex against the searing heat and agony, lovers clinging to one another, parents embracing their child in a final embrace.
It was this tragic demise, and reminders of Pompeii’s daily life in the form of takeaway food bars, piles of bottles, jewellery, brothels, theatres and houses, which filled my mind as we visited Pompeii one very hot afternoon last June. True, I was fascinated by this ancient Roman world which we had so easily and transformatively stepped into. But I was also struck by the great tragedy which this vast archaeological site represents, and by the great irony that without the scale and extent of that vast eruption and its tragic consequences, we would never have had the opportunity to so totally immerse ourselves in a rare slice of the ancient world. For that alone we must be happy.
These are some of my photos from our day, in Pompeii.
© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.