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review

Discovering Pompeii

Natasha Sheldon, June 2018, Independently published, 278 pages

--Links and info--

Front cover of the book

Europe

Ancient

Social

Romans

Discovering Pompeii is part guidebook, part history narrative, with each short chapter focusing in on a different building - and each building serving as a window onto a particular aspect of life in the Roman town.

I found it a great way to get to grips with the ancient site, transforming the empty shells of ruined buildings into living places.

★★★☆☆

Review by Anthony Webb, 7 June 2024

It was just after midday. The sun was high in the sky and radiating heat over the Roman town. Most people sought shade, perhaps beneath a portico or under a tree.

The family of four hurried down the street, also looking for respite from the sun, somewhere they could eat their simple meal of bread, cheese and olives. The youngest child - estimated to be a boy of about 5 years old - complained he was hungry, while the oldest, a boy of 8, skipped on ahead.

Meanwhile, looming over the scene to the north, lay the volcano Vesuvius. Brooding. Quiet. Waiting.

The fertile volcanic soil of the surrounding farmland meant the harvests here were reliably bountiful. Grapes the size and shape of small plums. Olives so big they looked like mini apples. Fat tomatoes that you could drink like a coconut.

A few sulphurous wisps of white cloud skirted the peak of the volcano, casting dappled shadows onto the crater rim.

Suddenly a rumbling feeling stopped the mother of the family in her tracks. Earth tremors were not unheard of in this part of Italy. But perhaps it was just her imagination - certainly no one else seemed troubled. And it had been several hours since they had last eaten: a snack on the outskirts of town. Reassured that it was just her tummy she continued onwards.

At last the family stopped in the grassy courtyard of the central public baths. It was not the traditional time for bathing and there were only a few other people in the building.

Scowling, the father (pater) of the family opened his bag and tore off hunks of bread for his hungry children, but not before their mother had made sure that they wiped their hand thoroughly with a wet wipe. They sat with their backs to the cool brick wall behind them.

After a fraught morning at last they felt safe, secure, relaxed.

It was not to last.

They had only one day to look round Pompeii and if they were to see even half of the town they would have to finish eating and get back on the streets.

After taking some photos of the bright green lizards that darted over the walls and leaving a few crumbs of bread for the ants, the family left the safety of the bath house courtyard.

After that day, the family would never see Pompeii again.1


Such was our fate when we visited Pompeii in April of this year (2024), exactly 1,945 years after the famous eruption in 79 CE that buried the town and killed its inhabitants.

Perhaps it was also fate that I subsequently came across Discovering Pompeii by Natasha Sheldon, first published in 2018, which serves as both a guide book to a number of the buildings in the town and a history book telling the story of Pompeii.

What’s in the book?

Arranged into three distinct parts the author shows you around:

  1. 🏛️ The forum and nearby important public buildings like temples and bath facilities
  2. 🏠 The main East-West street with shops and fancy houses.
  3. 🌋 The last journeys of Pompeii’s citizens as they tried to flee the eruption.

So it doesn’t cover all of Pompeii but it gives you a decent chunk of the town and a representative sample of the whole.

The book is split into lots of mini chapters each a few pages long and typically covering a single building that gives you an insight into an aspect of life in that town.

Brickwork

For example, I found the chapter on the Eumachia Building intriguing. The building is situated just off the East side of the forum and it’s described as a likely “purpose-built community/leisure centre” - maybe they loafed around reading scrolls and playing dominoes? The building is named after the lady who paid for it (Eumachia), who was the daughter of a fabulously wealthy brick tycoon, and married to a leading aristocrat of the town.

The first interesting thing is that Eumachia was dedicating this building (and others) in her own name indicating that she was independently influential and respected. Her high profile aristocrat husband didn’t overshadow her.

The second is that even though archaeologists are not totally sure what the building was used for2 there are some strong similarities with another “purpose-built community/leisure centre” built in Rome by the Empress Livia in 7 BCE about 80 years before the eruption. The layout is apparently identical and the door frame carvings are a close match.

This gives us hints of the mobile cosmopolitan lifestyle that a provincial lady from Pompeii could lead - even the daughter of a brickmaker.

In a short chapter of just a few pages, the building is used as a window into the life of a Roman matron, and we get a taste of the archaeological debate too.

What is it like to read?

Because the book is so intimately linked to place I think you would get most out of it if you have already been to Pompeii, or if you are planning on going.

It is short enough (and light enough) to dip into while you are on site too but a big drawback in this situation is that it is pretty much impossible to look up an individual building.

For example the chapter on the Eumachia Building above is not called the Eumachia Building but instead Women in Pompeii. Neither is the Eumachia Building referenced in an index.

This means you have to either faithfully follow one of the three routes set out by the author, or already know the structure of the book before you arrive and then deduce which chapter relates to which building as you go.

Perusing it post visit as I did, I found it worked best if I read it alongside the excellent site map of the town which you get with your Pompeii entrance ticket. (Luckily my wife had put our map somewhere safe when we got back to the UK, but you can also find the map from the official Pompeii website in pdf form.)

Style guide

In general though Discovering Pompeii is an accessible book to read. The chapters are no more than a few pages long and are split up nicely with illustrations, building plans, and ‘did you know?’ interjections. Each chapter gave me a few interesting things to think about, connected with the archaeological debate, and helped me to build up a broad picture of the ‘daily life’ of the town.

The writing is simple and straightforward and while the author does bandy Latin words about at times they are mostly clearly explained3.

Put simply: most guidebooks are tiresome and boring. This one isn’t.

A dim view

One thing to be aware of is that while there are lots of images and building plans, the pictures are small, black and white, and low resolution. They are clearly meant to be functional rather than beautiful but even so can be difficult to make out at times.

What I liked best

Where it really comes to life for me is in the stories it reconstructs about the individuals who lived in Pompeii, particularly those who were trying to flee or hide and were entombed in the falling pumice and ash.

I think that most people will be familiar with the technique that archaeologists have used in Pompeii to create plaster casts of people (and dogs) from their bodies - which decayed away but left a void in the surrounding volcanic material.

Sheldon details the likely last moments of some of these individuals, which can be very moving: a family caught on the roads in the act of fleeing the town when a pyroclastic cloud from the volcano killed them. A man was carrying a key and had wrapped his head in a cloak. A woman next to him carrying jewellery and valuables. Two girls followed behind.

Or a group of people hiding in a latrine next to a large exercise ground (palestra) including a doctor with his surgical instruments and an ‘athlete’ with his strigil and bottles of oil. They had barricaded themselves in against a large crowd of about a hundred people - the bodies were discovered “pressed against the exterior of the door... desperately trying to get inside.” Both those inside and outside died equally.

Air fried in an instant, these victims of the volcano feel alive to us now as real people - and more so than the distant Roman emperors.

Conclusion

I found Discovering Pompeii to be a great way to get to grips with the ancient town, transforming the empty shells of ruined buildings into living places.

It is not a totally comprehensive or all inclusive guide but neither is it meant to be. For me it was an excellent way to extend our trip after having got back to the UK, without having to worry about sweltering heat, flagging children - or looming volcanoes.


  1. Unless they decide to go back in future. ↩︎

  2. Other people have suggested the Eumachia Building was the meeting place of the fullers guild because there was a small statue of Eumachia in a niche of the building set up by this guild. Whatever the prescribed function of the building it is still hazy to me what people actually did in there. ↩︎

  3. Although I still have no idea what an antefix is. ↩︎


review

Book details

(back to top)
  • Title -

    Discovering Pompeii

  • Author -

    Natasha Sheldon

  • Publication date -

    June 2018

  • Publisher -

    Independently published

  • Pages -

    278

  • ISBN 13 -

    978-1983016998

  • Amazon UK -

    Amazon UK book link

  • Amazon US -

    Amazon US book link


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