Posts Tagged ‘Pliny the Elder’

Alberto Angela: Les trois jours de Pompeii

November 28, 2020

     A few years ago, I saw the amazing Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, and since then had been meaning to read more about what happened there in the first century CE. It was a toss-up between Mary Beard’s book – I have always enjoyed her TV programmes on the ancient world – and a new book by Alberto Angela, an Italian historian whose book on daily life in the Roman Empire I really enjoyed a couple of years ago.

Angela writes well, with an excellent eye for detail. Frequently, when he’s describing an object or artefact from the ruins, he gives us the Latin word as well, just in case we’re interested, or have some knowledge of the language. The book is structured well, as a countdown through the hours leading up to the eruption, and then the hours of its duration. I had no idea just how enormous and devastating the eruption was, and found myself thinking, OK, so what about Krakatoa?

It’s hard to describe the exact nature of the book; dealing with events so long ago, either you can provide a few bald facts, or you can engage in speculation, and Angela manages to tread an interesting, very fine line. There is documentary evidence for a certain number of survivors, and he focuses on those details to create a kind of docudrama novel, as it were, which explores their lives, homes and possible routines, obviously drawing on a good deal more general source material about ancient Rome, the excavations in the Pompeii-Herculaneum region and broader Roman history. So the imaginative part is very well-anchored in detail, and the overall effect brings those terrible days to life. In this sense his approach mirrors the successful one of his previous book. Where he is deliberately imagining things for the sake of completion, he says so clearly. Certainly, I never felt misled.

The Romans weren’t really aware of the mountain as a volcano, although there had been serious damage in 62CE; it wasn’t so prominent a feature of the landscape then as it is now, and they seem to have just put up with the warning signs that would nowadays have kicked evacuation plans into action. I was astonished at just how large an area was devastated, and the six phases of the eruption, which had different effects on the various towns and villages.

There are useful maps of the region and the towns and settlements, and some surprisingly well-reproduced photos in this mass-market paperback. Overall, I got a very clear picture of daily life, industry and routines in the region, which was the stomping ground of many well-to-do people of the time; Pliny the Elder died during the eruption, and his nephew Pliny the Younger observed events from some thirty miles away and wrote about what he had seen. One thing in particular touched me in the book: several times, Angela reminds us that the dozens of plaster casts of people dying in agony, that are in various museums and displays, were real people, and that it’s somehow not quite right to be gawping at them as tourists, and taking selfies with them…

The Search for Knowledge

March 9, 2014

219SW147+JL._I’ve been reflecting this week on this basic human drive: the urge to discover, and to know. I was prompted by revisiting two texts I really like, Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In Roman times, Pliny attempted to codify what was known about the natural world – and it’s a lot – and in the seventh century, Isidore, a Spanish monk, attempted to write down everything that was known about the world, organised into (to him) logical sequence, thus producing what is arguably the world’s first encyclopaedia. Everything is listed, and its Latin name analysed for clues as to its nature and essence, sometimes correctly, occasionally very fancifully. And for his efforts, Isidore was named patron saint of the internet, which I find wonderfully appropriate. Arab scholars also collected and codified knowledge; the only one I’ve read so far is Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early fifteenth century.


This urge to know, and to collect all knowledge, culminated in the encyclopaedias of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps culminating in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sadly, printed sets of this mammoth work cannot now even be freecycled with ease – who wants 32 hefty volumes on their shelves nowadays, with all knowledge at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger?

Apparently, we now can search for, and find out anything, instantly. No need to learn or retain facts, as they can easily be re-located at will. And yet, these are usually only snippets or gobbets of knowledge, without depth, detail and context. I use wikipedia as much as anyone: it’s an incredibly useful tool, most especially for the links at the end of a lot of articles. But if I want depth and detail, I still turn to old-fashioned paper. I wonder if it’s my age; certainly, reading page-like chunks of text online is quite hard on the eyes; ‘normal’ net-text is smitten into small gobbets, surrounded by white space and illustrated with pictures and hyperlinks, rather like today’s school textbooks, which used to have me wondering whether there was as much depth to learning and understanding nowadays… and is much more readable onscreen.

Long ago I realised that one of the reasons I love travel writing, especially from past ages, is that the travellers were genuinely exploring and discovering (for us) new places and peoples, new knowledge, and so often wondering and marvelling at the diversity of the world. This urge to discover is one of the best attributes of our species, it seems to me. I have been fascinated by the exploration of space from my very earliest years (at primary school, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men to reach the moon!); I’ve always felt that this is money well-spent, peanuts in comparison with what is wasted on armaments and warfare, for example. I don’t think I’ll ever live through a more significant moment than that night when I arose at 3am to watch live on TV the first men actually walk on the moon, and the thought that, in my lifetime, our species has built a spacecraft that was launched and has now travelled so far as to be almost outside our solar system, is truly marvellous.

So, what have I contributed to all this? I hope that, as a teacher, I managed to inspire students with a yearning for, and an understanding of the value of knowledge. I have read, and will continue to read and learn as long as the eyes allow, and I will discuss and argue about most things with whoever comes along… and hope to learn something new every day.

%d bloggers like this: