Posts Tagged ‘Les 3 Jours de Pompeii’

Alberto Angela: Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique

July 4, 2022

     This is the third book in Alberto Angela’s astonishing trilogy about life in Ancient Rome. The previous two – Empire and Les 3 Jours de Pompeii – were really good: a journey around the Roman Empire imagined through the travels of a one sesterce coin, and an hour-by-hour account of the days leading up to and immediately following the volcanic eruption which annihilated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79CE. This one is self-evidently about the daily life and routines of the Eternal City. Angelo chooses a Tuesday some time in 117CE, when the empire was at its greatest extent.

Angela is a well-known writer and historian in Europe, not really known here although Empire is available in English as The Reach of Rome. It’s definitely popular history in its tone, rather than an academic work, but it very definitely is not dumbed-down: every article, object or place is always given its Latin name, for instance, for those who want to know or remember…

Although I studied Roman history at school, there was very little about how Romans lived; Angelo has taught me a lot, as have various visits to Roman sites like Hadrian’s Wall, or Arles and Orange in Provence. It had never occurred to me that Romans collected antiques, for instance, but Angela points out that ancient Egyptian ‘collectibles’ were already 2000 years old at the time he is writing about. It is the wealth of details, and the explanations and connections with our own times that fascinate here: food, clothing, daily household tasks and routines, and the objects used. All this serves to humanise and bring that ancient world vividly to life.

I’d never really taken in the scale of the megalopolis that was Rome at its heyday, with over a million inhabitants, most living in the equivalent of today’s tower blocks; the place was on the scale of today’s London or New York with its buildings and crowds and problems. It’s also very hard for us to visualise what any Roman town of city would actually have looked like, since all we get to see are pillaged and stripped ruins which are, above all, denuded of their original colours. And the colossal amount of wood they needed to burn every day.

The explanations of how Roman public toilets actually worked, and the horrors of childbirth in those days, are vividly presented. Often Angela will go into such detail as to leave one thinking ‘this is docu-drama, he’s inventing to bring this to life’ and then explain that that particular person actually existed and cite the sources for his information.

In the end I found myself marvelling at how Angela manages to synthesise his portrayal, from the writings of classical writers of the time, from archaeological and historical research, and from scientific sources: when all this is put together, you end up with an accessible yet detailed and fascinating book. Full marks here, and where are the English publishers to make Angela’s work accessible to readers here?

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