Why All Of Pompeii’s Ancient Mysteries Matter

(Of Slaves, Prostitutes And Gladiators)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is hosting Pompeii: The Exhibition, the last stop in the exhibit’s North American tour. I walked through the exhibit with my 18 year-old son at my side. The question that remained for me was “why should a teenage kid care about an ancient Roman city that was buried under volcanic pumice and ash almost 2,000 years ago? Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian once rather ominously said,

The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.

I take up the gauntlet and would respond to Hobsbawm that Pompeii’s ancient history still holds very meaningful lessons for the education of “young men and women.” And providing a good civic education would mandate us to teach the whole story of history and its actors. I consider, then, the museum visit as an opportunity for a social and historical experience of remembering the past and studying how it connects to and informs our present experience.

Going to a museum to learn about Pompeii and its ancient history is a very worthwhile exercise for anyone, but especially edifying for children. The onsite museum visit is the fulcrum of an immersive educational experience. Children are able to connect with art and art history when given the opportunity to see the physical trappings of another culture in its everyday context. This grounds their museum experience in a sense of immediacy and makes it more mundane and more real to them. Seeing the everyday implements of the hearth: the kitchen, the living room and the bedroom in the home lives of its citizens connects the sensory data to a more relateable experience for children.

Image courtesy Pacific Science Center

I posed this question about Pompeii’s relevance to the local curriculum to Pacific Science Center’s Diana Johns, Vice President of Exhibits and Life Sciences, who stated that,

Some of the eye witness testimony during the Vesuvius eruption puzzled modern day volcano experts. Then Mt. St. Helen’s erupted in May of 1980 and the manner in which that eruption manifested, helped to explain what Pliny the Younger and others tried to describe 2000 years before. Volcanic eruptions millennia apart suddenly had things to inform about the other. Our languages, food, literature, music, numerical systems, religions, politics, advances in every field of science — everything we are today and the manner with which we navigate the world, derives and builds from the contribution of these ancient civilizations.

Onsite museum exhibits reach back, not to a vague world history lesson, but center one’s understanding on ordinary people who lived in domiciles and used implements much like we do today. Children who see an ancient Pompeian handled iron grill (pictured above) can immediately connect it to the barbeque grill on their own porch, and are able to make a contextual link to their own experience.

Johns also shared her thoughts on the museum exhibit’s potential for “hands-on historical education” to

Create an immersive experience as a hook and keep it relevant. POMPEII: The Exhibition does a really nice job of anchoring beautifully preserved, recognizable (to modern eyes) artifacts with a warm and vibrant colors, cool architectural features and large images. Visitors get the feeling of having stepped back in time, whether it’s the atrium of a wealthy Pompeii home or a busy Pompeii street. Different soundscapes help complete the sense of place. The exhibition does not assume a level of classical knowledge. Information within the experience stays at a high level, focusing on the most significant details rather than minutia and it’s presented in a variety of ways so it remains accessible no matter how actively or passively one likes to learn. Some people read everything, while others are more interested in getting their information from the videos, or other media like the audio tour, etc.

Image courtesy Pacific Science Center

An immersive exhibit like this helps to humanize ancient civilizations like Roman Pompeii. Visitors learn how they lived, what they ate, what they wore, how they bathed, entertained and were entertained. One experiences Pompeii and its people as something real and familiar. They, these ancient people, they are like us. This makes the ground shaking, smoke filled eruption theater that much more devastating. And when the eruption is over, visitors encounter six body casts, two of whom are youngsters, making a lasting impression. At a minimum, we hope visitors walk away with a broader understanding of an ancient civilization and perhaps become interested enough to learn more after they exit the exhibit.

Our own experience connects back, then to this great (and abridged) story of everyday people in the ancient world. Most people are already acquainted with the radiant frescoes and mosaic masterpieces of ancient Rome that depict mythological figures, glorious pictures of everyday life and beautiful portraits of patrician families and their sumptuous wealth. But these are only a few tesserae in the grand mosaic of what everyday life was like in ancient Rome.

Image courtesy Pacific Science Center

I believe that we have a civic mandate to learn the unabridged history of the world so we can foster a more responsible, civic education of all of our citizens. We have a responsibility to study what our human past is and how it is shaping our lives in ways we might not realize — our “history” is a living and organic continuum of everyday, human actions that have always worked together to recreate the future.

Image courtesy Pacific Science Center

Studying these human interactions of the past challenges us to uncover a more accurate, historiographic picture of human history outside the orthodox, patrician one. We give an historic voice to the marginalized, forgotten tesserae of the “story”, the historical actors and events that continue to shape our modern ethos. Walt Whitman said this in 1860,

Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?

Have you not learned great lessons form those who braced themselves against you and disputed the passage with you?

It is ethically necessary to piece together this unabridged picture of our past. To do this we must create a reckoning. We must form a more complete perspective and know the mixture of people in the story of the first century C.E. in Pompeii, the gladiators, the slaves and the prostitutes. We must know the good, the bad and the ugly — all that affect our understanding of what life was really like in this ancient city. Here are some points that may widen our perspective of the non-patrician actors in Pompeii’s history:

In 79 C.E., Pompeii was home to between 7,000 to 20,000 people (the population estimate is highly disputed by scholars). Rough estimates of the slave population are between five to seven slaves per household, according to a recent book. Patrician households (e.g., House of the Menander) would have had even more slaves.

Assuming a population of 10,000, one scholarly estimate puts Pompeii’s brothels at 35, although there is little consensus on this figure. The prostitute population, then would be at around 100. The prostitution industry was in fact a very profitable part of the one third of the local economy that was centered around commerce. It was connected with local inns and, furthermore a business that was invested in by local Pompeiian patricians.

Gladiators in ancient Rome were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals sentenced to serve in the gladiatorial schools. They captivated the public’s fascination and were depicted on mosaics, lamps and funeral monuments. But gladiators’ social status remained the same as the common criminal in Roman society, and they had a 17% death rate per show in Pompeii’s amphitheater, according to a seminal British Museum exhibition in 2013.

The archaeological record has shown that cultural influences spread via the regional trade flowing into Pompeii as an ancient trading center and gateway to the Mediterranean. The city was an important source of oil presses, importer of wine from Crete and exporter of wine and garum.

Pompeii’s complex cultural identity according to recent scholarship, is one that explored other languages, expressing these various cultural influences in art, construction style, materials of houses and the city’s urban plan. In the area’s pottery shards, graffiti and excavated layers, we find the influences of the Oscan, Etruscan, Samnite, Greek, Roman and Punic civilizations. Wallace-Hadrill calls this historical confluence the city’s “ cultural power of speaking different languages simultaneously, and playing them off against each other.”

When we think of the life of ancient Pompeii, I believe that it is relevant to think of all of her citizens, to never forget the slaves, the gladiators and the prostitutes who also wrote some of the pages of her vibrant, colorful and tragic history. Their lives and their stories are very much alive in the story of this city.

When visiting Seattle, take yourself and your children to Pompeii: The Exhibition, on through May 25th at the Pacific Science Center and let me know what you think.