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The Fires of Vesuvius

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Fires of Vesuvius

Fires of Vesuvius

Harvard University Press

The Bottom Line

Fires of Vesuvius is like a guided tour of Pompeii given by someone with expert command of all the relevant background. What most impresses me about The Fires of Vesuvius is that despite its being a publication from a university press, Mary Beard has written so as to satisfy the newcomer as well as those with more in depth knowledge of ancient Rome.
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  • 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
  • Witty


  • 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

Although Pompeii has suffered the ravages of tourists and time since its excavation, as well as the usually unmentioned ravages of Allied forces in WWII, we still think of it as presenting a picture of Rome suspended in time. Mary Beard explains how the snapshot in time is valid and why it is wrong. Among other detailed reasons for not taking Pompeii as a mirror of the past, one trivial one that caught my eye is the vibrant colors of the frescoes may be the artificial product of archaeologists trying to preserve the material.

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.

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