Yesterday, as part of an extended birthday celebration, we passed a happy couple of hours at the British Museum exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum. Sometimes these much-vaunted blockbuster exhibitions prove in reality to be something of an anti-climax – either all the juicy bits have been heavily trailed in the advance publicity, or the exhibition relies on its grandiose status as an alternative to any sort of coherent theme or argument. This event, I am pleased to say, avoided all of these pitfalls.
One of its most successful aspects is that you can engage with it on so many different levels. At the most basic, it is simply an opportunity to learn about the events of that day in August AD79 (or October, depending on which historical argument you are most convinced by!). Pompeii and Herculaneum were each affected differently by the eruption of Vesuvius, and the exhibition explains how this led to the survival of different artefacts in different conditions from the two locations.
Beyond this history and science of the eruption itself, the exhibition offers an insight into the lives of the Romans and their slaves at this period. Most of us tend to think that in the last 2000 years or so we have made huge advances in the way we live, and of course in many ways this is true. But to look at the fresco painting, or the furniture, or even the most minute details of life such as a colander from the kitchen of a house buried in the eruption, is to reflect on how little some aspects of life have changed in 2000 years. Transported back to the society of Pompeii in the first century AD, would one really find so very many things different?
But I think the exhibition also reaches out at a more profound level by highlighting the presence of real and ordinary people in these cities – in the paintmark fingerprints on a pottery mould, the electoral slogans painted up on a wall, or the graffiti perhaps excecuted by children. Most poignant of all, one gains the sense of a population who got up one morning which they expected to be much like any other, but never got to see the following dawn.
As WH Auden once observed, our suffering takes place while “someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”; and sometimes, perhaps, it creeps up on us while we are doing these things ourselves. It is in exposing to us the terrible unexpectedness and devastation of the events in Pompeii and Herculaneum that this exhibition reaches most powerfully across the millennia.