Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Friends and countrymen

They entertained, liked a drink, and filled their homes with beautiful objects. They loved jewellery, carved graffiti onto walls, and idolised literary figures from the past. 

And, naturally, they got into fights down the pub. These exquisite lines are from a fresco dedicated to "tavern life", translated from Latin – the men in question are arguing about a game of dice: "That's not a three, it's a two". "Now look here, you cocksucker, it was me who won." Latin, for me, always has lofty religious connotations, so it's enlightening to see it reclaimed for the streets. Cocksucker, in case you're wondering, is "fellator". 

I hadn't realised how like the Romans we are today until I visited the British Museum's awe-inspiring exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which opens tomorrow. It charts the domestic lives of ordinary Romans – as opposed to emperors and gladiators – living in these ill-fated cities, painting a technicolour picture of everyday life in AD79. Roman society was changing: women and freed slaves were growing in importance. 

There was an overpowering sense, walking round the show, of a direct line from these sociable, humorous people to you and I today, and how we live our lives. These Romans, living on the coast, built elegant cabinets to house their plates, glasses and jugs, and lit oil lamps perfumed with exotic scents. They shopped, and they loved gardening, hanging wind chimes outside to tinkle in the sea breeze. Wind chime in Latin is "tintinnabulum" – now one of my favourite words.  

They indulged in sentimental rituals, such as placing ornamental silver skeletons among their serving dishes to remind them to enjoy life, because death is always coming. If only they knew how close it was: the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as if from nowhere (they believed the volcano was extinct) wiped out Pompeii and its neighbouring seaside town, Herculaneum in one terrifying day.  

Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness, described the darkness that engulfed the towns – the cloud of ash and rock – "as if the light had gone out... You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men." 

Yet in their destruction, these cities were, of course, preserved. That darkness actually shone a light onto these ordinary Roman lives. Prepare to be moved.  


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