life in pompeii -- 8/17/21

Today's selection -- from Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. Life in Pompeii:
"[Because of the volcano,] at Pompeii, everything was preserved, from sumptuous temple offerings to price lists for takeout. Early explorers carefully chronicled what they found but focused most of their energies on plundering gold, jewels, and priceless mosaics. Today, however, archaeologists come to Pompeii to glimpse everyday life at the height of the Roman Empire. The city was frozen in time, or perhaps cooked, with all the quirky cultural ephemera that are usually erased in continuously occupied cities like Rome or Istanbul.

"The house was arguably the center of life at Çatalhöyük, but at Pompeii the street was where everything happened. In the shops, baths, and tabernas (pubs), people lived and worked, made plans, and met new friends. Romans invented a new kind of public life in their streets, codi­fied by law and enforced through social norms. People of all classes and backgrounds mingled on sidewalks made from cement and compacted dirt. Old villas belonging to the ultrarich sprawled near a business association for freed slaves; well-heeled tourists from three continents rubbed shoulders with townie bartenders in the tabernas. Rich land­ladies glanced sidelong at sex workers calling to men from the rooms where they plied their trade. Nothing embodied everyday public life in Pompeii more than the city's street scenes and related amusements.

   Via dell'Abbondanza, the main street in Pompeii

"Pompeii was snuffed out at a pivotal time in Roman history, when the old social hierarchies of the Republic had crumbled away, and radical new ideas were springing up in their place. Ordinary people could challenge the supremacy of Rome's aristocratic elites and win. Women became entrepreneurs and public benefactors, while former slaves got rich. There was social mobility. When the eruption dark­ened the skies overhead with ash, Pompeiians were in the middle of a slow social revolution. On its streets, smeared with smutty graffiti, full of bars and bathhouses and brothels, we can see the footprint that these changes left behind.

"Pompeii's history begins in the fourth century BCE. A bustling port city on the Bay of Naples, it was ruled by the Samnites, Rome's uneasy allies. Its residents spoke Oscan and built temples to Samnite gods, farming the fertile volcanic soils on the slopes of nearby Mount Vesu­vius. They fished in the bay and traded with cities across the Medi­terranean. Economically rich and strategically located at the nexus of the sea and a large inland river network, Pompeii was an obvious target for Roman conquest. But for at least two centuries, Rome was content to treat Pompeii as an ally, as long as the town provided sol­diers for its wars. Then, in 91 BCE, Pompeii and a few other southern Italian towns sparked the so-called Social War with Rome, partly in an attempt to gain more rights after centuries of serving as de facto client states. After a bitter struggle, a Roman army led by Lucius Cornelius Sulla crushed the Samnite resistance in 80 BCE. Pompeii became a fully Roman city, and Sulla forcibly settled thousands of retired Roman soldiers there. The new Romanized population con­verted Samnite temples to Roman ones, and Pompeii's official lan­guage became Latin.

"This colonial history set the tone for Pompeii's polyglot culture.

"Though technically Roman, Pompeii still had a thriving Samnite com­munity who openly worshipped Oscan deities like Mefitis, a multifac­eted goddess often compared to Venus. People kept scribbling graffiti in Oscan on Pompeii's walls right up until the day Vesuvius erupted. Immigrant cultures also thrived throughout the city, and one of the strongest non-Roman influences came from North African empires."



Annalee Newitz


Four Lost Cities


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2021 by Annalee Newitz


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