Friday, January 8, 2010

Book Review: The Fires of Vesuvius

I visited Pompeii for a few hours in 2003 during 40C weather (convert it, it's hot) with a 9-month old in a stroller and quickly found that Roman streets were not made for strollers. Because I was following a guide I had no idea where I was and wished I had more of a complete view of what was going on. Six years later I read the book that I should have read before going (although that would have been difficult considering it was just published last year): The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard. Beard is a classicist who summarizes everything we know (and debate) about Pompeii, and it's fascinating. We know incredible details about some things and are blank about the others. What stands out most to me is that we can get closer to what life was like in 70 A.D. but it's still frustratingly far from understanding what ancient minds were like. In particular I'm interested in understanding what people really believed about their gods, about their marriages, about their slaves, etc. And we already have written evidence for a lot of that, it's just complicated with all the usual caveats that go along with written evidence. This book about Pompeii takes you as far as you can go based on current understanding, and I recommend it for anyone interested in classics, or even for anyone who reads Paul's epistles and wants to know what Corinth or Ephesus may have been like: Pompeii is a unique window into that past.

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