The Bottom Line
- MB seems to know ALL the questions one might ask -- including touristy ones
- Copious and well-selected illustrations
- Gives context to all the tidbits you might have heard about Pompeii
- Almost breathes life into the blanketed city
- No alphabetical bibliography
- Chapters on street life, occupations, government, sexuality, religion, games and art.
- Practical advice for people planning to visit Pompeii.
- Extensive further reading section, but no alphabetical bibliography.
- Illustrations of various types, black and white, color plates, diagrams.
Guide Review - The Fires of Vesuvius
However, the layer under the Vesuvian blanket is about as close as we're going to get until a time machine is perfected, so we use the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum for information on ancient Rome. This leads MB to address the ways in which Pompeii can be considered a reflection of the times. It was a much smaller city than Rome, and it had a Greek heritage. Many people probably escaped, so the remains reflect a subset of the population. Guesses are made about who owned the Pompeiian residences based on sometimes odd finds.
Between the famous fresco of Priapus weighing his phallus and the presumed brothels with their pictures of sexual positions, it's hard to describe Pompeii without touching on Roman sexuality. Mary Beard provides an excellent Pompeiian sexuality 101 chapter, as she also does of ancient Roman religion. She also describes the workday world and other more mundane, but fascinating aspects of ancient life.
Mary Beard writes like a story teller who just happens to be a classicist. Evidently years of teaching and paying attention to the concerns of her students have prepared her to leave no stone unturned, to pepper her prose with attention-grabbing details, and to make sure she informs both the best and the least prepared of her readers.