The latest issue of Historically Speaking includes my interview with Mary Beard. I post an excerpt of it here. The full piece can be accessed on Project Muse.
Rome Unearthed: An Interview with Mary Beard on Pompeii and the Ancient World
Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University. She was Visiting Sather Professor of Classical Literature for 2008–2009 at the University of California, Berkeley. Beard is the author of a variety of essays and books on the ancient world, including: Religions of Rome, with John North and Simon Price (Cambridge University Press, 1998); The Parthenon (Harvard University Press, 2002); and The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press, 2007). Beard is also the classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and she is the author of the popular blog, “A Don’s Life.”
Beard’s scholarship has long challenged certain widely held views of the ancient world. Her recent book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Harvard University Press, 2008) introduces a note of mystery and uncertainty into what we think we know about Pompeii and the lives of ancient Romans. Pompeii was not frozen in amber, she argues. Its history stretches back centuries before the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius, and it bears the marks of later excavations. “The bigger picture and many of the more basic questions about the town remain very murky indeed,” she writes. Historically Speaking editor Randall Stephens recently interviewed Beard about her work and popular perceptions of the distant past.
Randall Stephens: Do you remember your first visit to Pompeii?
Mary Beard: I have a very vivid memory of my first visit. I went with a friend. I’d been studying Pompeii at Cambridge as an undergraduate, and she hadn’t. I was going to be the guide. I was devastated when we got there. So much of what I’d learned, particularly about the art and the wall decorations, had been made to seem so clear and so important and so sort of fixed. But none of the stuff I saw in Pompeii matched what I’d learned. There seemed to be a huge gap between people’s desire to explain it and systematize it and what you actually saw when you walked around.
Stephens: In The Fires of Vesuvius you write, “The fact is that we know both a lot more and a lot less about Pompeii than we think.” Could you say a little about what you mean here?
Beard: What is amazing about Pompeii is that you can walk around and try to reconstruct the life of the town. I remember walking down the street a few years ago and noticing little holes drilled in the curbstones, often outside houses, but not always. I’d never seen these mentioned in books. My husband and I started trying to hash this puzzle out, and we decided that they must be where they tied up animals. There had to be tethering posts because there were loads of mules and other animals going through the city. I eventually found a few articles debating what they were. So all you need to do is go to Pompeii with your eyes open and say: “I wonder what that was.”
Stephens: Even ancient graffiti, which you point out is so ubiquitous at Pompeii, gives us a more complex picture of this world than one might think.
Beard: You can go into a house and, even if you don’t read Latin, you can see that some of the graffiti scrolled on these walls is about three feet high. Well, that’s obviously someone kneeling down, or it’s a child—much more likely a child. I think there’s an enormous amount of fun in trusting your innate powers of observation and going from there.
Stephens: The layers of interpretation and the layers of ruins that you’ve uncovered in the book are intriguing. How much of what we know of Pompeii is shaped by what happened after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius?
Beard: It has an interesting history after the eruption—in the period, that is, when we think of Pompeii as happily asleep, waiting for rediscovery. While I’m suspicious of the view that the Romans undertook an enormous and systematic rescue operation soon after the eruption, it seems extremely likely that salvagers came to get the really valuable stuff—statues from the forum, and so on. It must have been frightfully dangerous, and some of them almost certainly died in the attempt because the tunnels would have collapsed. Some of the bodies that you can now see—casts of bodies made where their remains left a vacuum in the lava—are almost certainly bodies of looters, not those of the unfortunate Pompeii victims. . . .