Sunday, September 4, 2016
When in Rome (or Pompeii).....
There is something that has always fascinated about the fated city of Pompeii even before living in an apartment south of Naples and being able to see the shadowy outline of Vesuvius on a clear day. I visited the Naples museum which contains some of the Pompeii artefacts and even got to the less well-known lava-washed city of Herculaneum. But never Pompeii itself. Instead there was, initially, a vicarious visit through the fiction of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's ponderous Victorian The Last Days of Pompeii--twice started and never finished and the more contemporary Pompeii by Robert Harris--also never finished.
And then came Mary Beard's Pompeii: The Life and Death of a Roman Town, which presented a clear and palatable picture of the town and its people. I highly recommend it along with watching Roberto Rosselini's 1954 Journey to Italy, much of which is set among the ruins of Pompeii.
Pompeii led me to her most recent book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, of which I am halfway through at this writing and and am also finding fascinating and accessible--and this coming from a person who hated Roman history in high school and who almost failed Latin. Beard takes an academic (but far from impenetrable) approach to the story and breaks it down into bit-sized sections in chapters such as "The Kings of Rome" and "Rome's Great Leap Forward." Thus the book can be easily picked up and put down without losing the thread of the whole history.
But, if you are looking for the drama of the pseudo-Roman stories presented in such films as Spartacus, Caligula, Gladiator, Ben-Hur and the like, look somewhere else. If you are looking to gain intellectual and well-researched insight into Roman history, then SPQR is the place to turn.