What is it about Pompeii that we still love?

by Craig Melson

Pompeii has seemingly never been more popular in our culture, with a hit film starring Jon Snow from Game of Thrones and Jack Bauer, an irritatingly catchy Bastille song, an episode of Doctor Who (which inconveniently guest starred the next Doctor) , a bestselling novel and a record setting British Museum exhibition. We’ve always loved Pompeii and our allure with the ruined city goes back centuries, so why can’t we get enough of it?
The Last Days of Pompeii is probably best known as a brilliant TV series, but no so well-known is that it started out as an 1834 book by all-round 19th century genius Edward Bulwer-Lytton, himself inspired by a painting of the same name by Russian painter Karl Bryullov. This era was the real height of Pompeii loving, where every young European noble would revel in neo-Classicism and undertake the ‘Grand Tour’, which often had Pompeii as the culmination (though richer and more adventurous nobles ventured on to Greece and Turkey). The Roman Empire during this period had both an enhanced and diminished role compared to now with nations obsessed with Rome as they went empire building, however, saw Rome in a one dimensional source of cool stories and pretty art, both things Pompeii supplied in spades when the serious excavations seriously excavated. It also provided moral lessons in the religious sphere, with the conservatively Catholic Italians denying full access to some of the more…interesting frescoes up to 2000, and preachers using the rediscovery to highlight the wrath of god (which is also Pliny’s assessment of why the volcano erupted).

Fast forwarding to now, there are probably two reasons why we love Pompeii, and keep reimagining it across all our different mediums. Firstly, is the touchy feely emotional side, as people relate to the folks that lived there, imagining the horror of the eruption, with the plaster casts and massed skeletons at Herculaneum hammering this point home. Takeaway restaurants, living rooms, doormats, shops, sports arenas are all things we recognise and relate to, and act as snap shots into ancient lives.
The second reason is the insight the ridiculously well-preserved site gives us into to normal Roman urban living. First century Pompeii was a pretty, but unremarkable Italian city, laid out and with the same grid pattern and social layers as thousands of other Roman cities across the Empire. Classical scholarship has always been about marrying the archaeological evidence with literary sources, which are of course hugely imbalanced towards recording the lives of the elite. Religious buildings, fora, villas and the like are hugely valuable as evidence, but all pale in comparison to what Pompeii tells us about urban life.

It’s not only the classicists, historians, geologists and geographers who have had their knowledge enhanced by Pompeii, but also engineers, doctors, city planners, plumbers, politicians, plasterers have all directly or indirectly drawn on Pompeian examples, as like any modern town of today, it has a thousand stories to tell. And we love it.

I would like to end with a quote from Up Pompeii!, but never found it that funny.


photo : Karl Briullov, *The Last Days of Pompeii*, 1827-33. Wikimedia Commons.


Craig Melson graduated from King’s College London in 2007 and has since worked in TV, policy and public affairs. He likes European politics, Shakespeare and anything classics, but hates UCL.