Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – Review

The British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition has proved incredibly popular – tickets are already sold out until late June, and it’s been getting rave reviews. Going to visit seemed like a good way for a group of classicists to spend the Bank Holiday, so as promised, here are some thoughts arising from the exhibition itself and the lengthy discussions we had afterwards. I know other people who’ve already visited may have very different opinions – I look forward to continuing the discussion in the comments!

The exhibition is arranged as a Roman house – you start in the street outside and then enter the atrium, bedroom, garden, living room, and kitchen, before the final section dealing with the eruption. I can’t quite make up my mind about this ‘house’ layout: it works well in, e.g., the recreation of a frescoed garden room, and it’s nice to see an attempt to give objects a bit more context than they’d normally get in museum cases, but it did feel a bit like just an excuse for the set designers to have fun building an impluvium. That doesn’t, however, detract from the wonderfulness of many of the objects. Of course, pretty much all the most well-known items were there (Dog mosaic? Check. Terentius Neo and wife? Check. Carbonised bread? Check. Bust of Caecilius? Check, though the fact that it was actually a Herm was a bit of a shock to CLC fans) but there was also plenty of less familiar stuff: carbonised furniture (including pieces of a wonderful decorated bed), a piece of wooden ceiling, window panes, chamber pots, a writing tablet (belonging to Caecilius). Plus, of course, garum jars, jewellery, more carbonised food, statues, fresco fragments, silver dinner services, a dormouse-fattening jar, and plenty more. It’s an amazing selection, and I’d definitely recommend it to everyone just on that basis – the chance to see all of these things together in one place is not to be missed. (Also, a small thing, but a definite bonus point: they actually mentioned the debate over the date of the eruption, which was pretty unexpected!)

As you’ve probably guessed, though, there are several ‘buts’ to follow. First of all, the exhibition’s stated aim (from the press release) is ‘[to] give visitors a taste of the daily life of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ – but ‘daily life’ apparently means essentially ‘what their houses were like’, and despite the ‘street’ section, with a few statues and inscriptions, there’s almost nothing by way of broader context to this – even though exhibits like the election graffiti, for instance, could easily have been used to talk about politics and civic government. Religion was another area that was almost entirely absent, apart from the odd household shrine. Plus, of course, as this excellent review points out, ‘daily life’ here is basically the life of rich people. Obviously this is hardly a problem unique to this exhibition – and credit where it’s due, there were some much less high-spec items on display: some pretty crummy figurines from household shrines, for instance. But there wasn’t much about how poorer people actually lived (nothing about insulae, so far as any of us saw). Something we talked about a lot afterwards was the problem of using individuals as illustrations of a whole society – not just using a few Pompeians to stand for all of Pompeii, but also using Pompeii and Herculaneum to talk about the whole of Roman society. It’s inherent in any exhibition that it has to use a few objects to tell a much wider story, but it might have been nice to see at least the occasional acknowledgement of the complications involved in using just these two towns at one point in time to illustrate the whole of ‘Roman life’.

The second ‘but’ is more to do with the concept of the exhibition as a whole: its overall message is very much that the Romans were ‘just like us’, people with whom the average visitor can connect and empathise. In principle, this is a great way of getting people interested in and engaging with the ancient world. The problem is, once you’ve established those similarities, you’ve got to address the differences, because they’re what’s most interesting and important – and that’s what this exhibition almost completely failed to do. Without that second step, the message felt terribly reductionist and simplistic: Look, the Romans had cradles for their babies! They had gardens with fountains! They may have liked lamps with giant phalluses, but that’s not ‘pornography’ really, so don’t worry!

What really let the exhibition down in this respect was its treatment of slavery and the position of women. Talking about these would have been a perfect way to highlight the essential differences between us and the Romans and reflect on their society and our own, and it’s a real disappointment that instead the BM chose to go with an almost completely unproblematised ‘they were just like us’ narrative. The picture of slavery was a very rosy one: slaves are part of the familia, they get freed, become citizens, set up businesses, and inherit their master’s property. All true, for some slaves; but I wonder what happened to the other side of the story. The parts dealing with women were perhaps even worse. It seemed like there literally couldn’t be a reference to a woman – even on the label for the baby’s cradle! – without stressing how (to quote the exhibition leaflet) ‘women were visible and influential in society and at home’. Obviously Eumachia gets mentioned a lot in this context, without any apparent sense that she might be the tiniest bit unusual; the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife also gets held up as an exemplar, since ‘their pose and presentation suggests they are equal partners, in business and in life’. Well, ok, perhaps they do, but may I just point out: we don’t even know her name. This wonderfully egalitarian couple will be ‘Terentius Neo and his wife’ forever.

In the final section, after a timeline of events and a case containing items found with some of the victims’ bodies, there are three sets of casts of victims: a woman from Oplontis, cast in resin; the seated man from Pompeii; and a family group, parents with their two children. Obviously you can’t talk about Pompeii and Herculaneum without talking about the human tragedy behind the preservation of all these wonderful things, and seeing the victims of the eruption brings it home in a way that no object or text panel can that these were real people – but that’s the problem: effectively, you’re watching real people’s death agonies, and displaying them spot-lit on a plinth just seems uncomfortably ghoulish. I’m not really sure what the alternative is – realistically, there was no way the casts were going to be left out, and indeed there are some pretty good arguments for including them. I just can’t think of a way of doing so that doesn’t still leave me feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing.

I’ve got to confess I’m at something of a loss when it comes to summing up this exhibition. I should repeat again what a fantastic opportunity it is to see all this stuff – even when a lot of it is so familiar to us as classicists, it’s a completely different experience seeing it in person (if you don’t believe me, go there and look at the portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife. Considering how over-exposed we all are to that picture, I was amazed at how genuinely affecting seeing the real thing was). But the more I think about the exhibition as a whole, the less sense I have of what it was actually about and what, in the end, it was really doing. But then, maybe I’m not being fair to it – maybe classicists are just too familiar with the subject to judge this on its merits as an exhibition which, let’s face it, is not actually aimed at us. So I’m just going to have to end by asking what you think, readers – whether you loved it, hated it, or had similarly mixed feelings, tell us in the comments!

Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

16 thoughts on “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum – Review”

  1. Great review! I think you’re particularly right to point out the disconnect between Terentius Neo and his wife as ‘equal partners’ and her anonymity cementing her in history as an appendage to him.


    1. Thanks! I’ve got to admit, that’s something that never even occurred to me till I was writing that sentence and thought, hang on. I had to go and check I hadn’t just somehow missed her name completely. Which just goes to show how easy it is to unconsciously gloss these things over…


  2. This is an excellent review. I said all of this when we were there, but might as well record it for posterity/the Internets:

    I did find the ‘They’re just like us narrative’ very problematic. It’s one of the things that most irritates me about presentations of the ancient world. It wasn’t ‘just like us’ any more than other cultures now are just like us. They’re weird and strange and they have ways of thinking and ways of doing things which are completely alien to us. To ignore that or not engage with that properly isn’t just to make them less interesting, it verges on a kind of cultural imperialism where we appropriate them to ourselves. Also, because it means glossing over things like slavery and the poor treatment of women, it also does a disservice to the people who’ve struggled to win the improvements we’ve seen in those areas.

    When you’ve got this narrative combining with an almost total focus on upper-class domesticity (probably the most over-exposed part of Pompeian life – I mean, it’s literally the first bit of Classical culture that gets taught in school Latin classes) the result is an exhibition which in many ways feels quite old-fashioned and ‘safe’. It’s a very familiar, liberal-middle-class version of Pompeii that repeats time-worn information while constantly reassuring the museum-going public that people back then may have been a little eccentric with their phallic wind-charms and goat-sex statues, but at the end of the day they were nice people much like you or me.

    That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The items are fabulous and some of them are very exciting. They’re laid out well and the information’s mostly pretty good. But I came away feeling it was all a bit unambitious and something of a missed opportunity.


    1. Absolutely agreed. (I hope I’ve done justice to your comments from Monday, and the others’. I was trying to give mostly my own impressions, since I didn’t want to take over other people’s views too much, but also deal with some things we talked about that seemed particularly important, that hadn’t necessarily occurred to me at the time. I was too busy being annoyed about the slaves and the women to really focus on the lack of poor people while I was in the place, for one thing.)


      1. Yes, of course! I think you steered just the right course of giving your own opinion (which after all is the whole point of a review!) while developing some of the thoughts which came out of our discussions.


  3. Thanks for this review – I’m actually quite interested in going to see it now. I’m not an avid museum goer (*hides*), but I am fond of exhibitions were objects are contextualised into some sort of organised space, like all the rooms at the Met, so you can better think about the connections between them rather than taking them as isolated objets d’art – so I’m very interested in that aspect. Otherwise, some of the stuff I really like from the BM’s normal collection are the pumps and other mechanical devices, mostly for thinking about how mechanisation and slavery interrelated (such thoughts appeal to the part of me that was never going to be an engineer but likes taking things apart and playing with technology). Did they have a lot /any of that on show? (They have a great pump for draining your fountain when it gets clogged up, but I’m not sure it’s from Pompeii.) Or was it all static objects?


    1. Well, they had a well-head with a windlass and a few bits of water-pipe in the ‘garden’ section (something they touched on but could have made more of: no running water in the home but they’ve got piped water for garden fountains, for goodness’ sake). Other than that…can’t think of much in the way of machinery, I’m afraid. Good collection of kitchen equipment, though (the cupcake-tray-thing has always been one of my favourites, for obvious reasons). If/when you go, I’d definitely be interested to hear what you think about the house arrangement!


  4. Not having been to actual Pompeii (hides) I was initially too bowled over by the objects to really expend that much critical attention on the presentation. But I take all your points. Re: just like us–in that sense I’m glad they had some phallic bric brac, as that, more than anything else there, served to remind that no they were not.
    I think it’s a delicate balance when talking about the ancient world: we need to emphasize that they had very different cultural values and practices; but at the same time, there does need to be an acknowledgement that they were the same organisms as us and had the same basic needs and desires.
    I was amused / gratified that they gave pride of place to L. Caecilius Iucundus: generations of Cambridge Latin Course devotees will surely feel a thrill. Caecilius est in atrio.
    (on that note, I never realized that the bust of him was a herm, thus confirming graphically one of the first CLC sentences, “Caecilius est vir.” Est vero).
    I agree entirely about the casts. Indeed, I’ve never been fully comfortable with them–it seems to be adding insult to injury to gawk at these people who died horribly. On the other hand, does seeing them not enable us to feel genuine sympathy for people who would, in other circumstances, be abstractions? I just don’t know, to be honest.
    Most poignant artifact though? Charred crib.
    Looking back, I think my favourite bit was the kitchen with its discussion of the sewers–being able to identify diet was really interesting. And Fran, I found the pipes fascinating. They were just like our pipes!


    1. Why is everybody hiding from me all of a sudden? I’m not that scary, honest…And actually, you won’t see anything like most of this stuff in Pompeii/Herculaneum; I don’t think a lot of the furniture etc is even normally on display in Naples, so from that perspective this is an absolutely incredible collection of stuff.
      I agree, you can’t make ancient cultures completely alien any more than you can make them completely just like us, and yes it is a difficult balance to get. At least they were trying re the phalluses etc, but it felt like they were simultaneously opening up the possibility of them being different in that regard and shutting down any actual discussion of it with the constant reassuring labels that it’s ‘humorous/a good luck charm’ so we don’t actually need to be bothered by it. Maybe sometimes we SHOULD be bothered by it, because how else are we going to start thinking about it properly?
      Re the casts: no, I don’t know either. My initial reaction was to wish they could have found a way of doing the exhibition without the casts at all – but then, ignoring them is just as bad in a different way. Somehow seeing them in Pompeii itself seemed less ghoulish than seeing them in a museum – I don’t know why, maybe I was just less sensitive about this aged sixteen, but they felt less like they’d been made into ‘objects’, in a way.


      1. I’m toying with the idea of a whole blog post on the rights and wrongs of using dead people (whether casts, mummies, bog bodies or skeletons) in museum displays. It’s such a fraught and interesting area.


        1. It’s tricky. I know that I respond much more strongly to these casts and to bog bodies than to mummies or skeletons, which I rationalise as being because of the very visible violence involved in the deaths of the former — but underlying that, I guess, is partly desensitization to mummies and skeletons, and partly just that they don’t look as much ‘like people’. Maybe I *should* be as bothered about putting them on display (though actually, come to think of it, I’ve always felt that mummies ought to at least be left inside their cases. I don’t really like it when they take off all the various layers to show the actual (if still wrapped-up) mummy inside). Anyway…yes, a post on that would be very interesting!


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