Posts Tagged ‘volcanic eruption’

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…

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