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Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum: frozen in time by disaster

A new exhibition lets us into the lives of ordinary Romans—forgotten by history but preserved under tonnes of burning ash, writes Sarah Ensor

Issue No. 2347

The local baker Terentius Neo and his wife, immortalised in a wall painting in their house

The local baker Terentius Neo and his wife, immortalised in a wall painting in their house

The British Museum’s latest exhibition brings together artifacts from two Roman towns destroyed in a single volcanic explosion.

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy in 79 AD. 

The catastrophe buried the towns and most of their inhabitants under ash. They were left almost untouched until they were rediscovered in 1759—the year the British Museum opened. 

It must have been a hideous death, if a quick one. 

But because of it we know how ordinary Roman people lived and how their shops, streets and homes were organised. 

The exhibition begins in a street. It quickly becomes clear that the towns on the Bay of Naples were thriving hubs of trade, public life, temples and homes. 

The statues of the priestess Eumachia and empress Livia are striking as confident expressions of women in public life—even though women had a lower status than men, and only male citizens could vote.


But they are also important for the extraordinary beauty of the sculptures, in bronze and marble. 

Their faces are stylised but the folds of their clothes and Eumachia’s dress stretched over her knee are utterly lifelike.

The exhibits are laid out on the plan of a typical Pompeii middle class house—known as the house of the tragic poet.

It has the common feature of shops in front of the house itself. 

The unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum came as a shock to the establishment’s idea of Ancient Rome. 

What was expected to be a noble, refined culture steeped in classical prose and poetry turned out to be as raucous as any London street.   

These people loved frescoes with graffiti that showed their sense of humour—jokes about sex, drink, gambling and cheating each other. 

Their furniture, jewellery, cups and chamber pots were familiar too.

They also had thousands of slaves. This was a brutal institution was central to the Roman economy.

But unlike the later transatlantic slave trade, slavery wasn’t racialised and slaves weren’t treated as sub-human. 

Freed slaves were common. They could become traders, craftspeople and even their masters heirs.


At the end of the exhibition are the plaster casts made from the spaces in the ash that formed as the bodies rotted away. 

The family group found trying to shelter under their stairs is a suitably somber, moving end to the exhibition.

The tickets are selling fast. But a film called Pompeii Live will be released in 200 cinemas across Britain in June. 

It will show the exhibition and recreate the day of the eruption. Don’t miss it.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Until 29 September, tickets from £15
British Museum, London WC1B 3DG

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Fri 5 Apr 2013, 16:02 BST
Issue No. 2347
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