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Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth

Pompeii: The Living City

by Alex Butterworth

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While not intended as a companion piece to Robert Harris's historical novel Pompeii, this book served that purpose very well. Indeed, Harris himself provides a complimentary quote on the front cover, stating that he wished this book had been available when he was researching his novel. That was enough to make me pick it up from the library.

This is a highly detailed look at Pompeiian society from about the AD 50s to AD 79, when the famous eruption of Vesuvius occurred. My knowledge of Ancient Rome in general comes from approximately two semesters' worth of Latin classes, so the extra details about the various emperors and their power struggles were most illuminating, even if they did become a bit overwhelming at times. The "fictional vignettes" interspersed throughout the narrative were hit and miss for me, but more hit than miss (or at least, not violently objectionable).

The most interesting chapters for me were the one about the eruption and, perhaps surprisingly, the one about Pompeii's sexual mores. At least, the sex chapter was the source of most of my notes, usually accompanied with "?!" or :O faces. Makes me think that perhaps HBO's series about Rome was not entirely off the mark in terms of adult content. (Granted, some of the imagery was fertility-related, not necessarily erotic, but it can still be kind of eyebrow-raising for modern audiences, if only because of its ubiquity.) And that eruption chapter -- wow. It was quite possibly even more chilling than Robert Harris's description, because the author here detailed the entire eruption, from the initial blast to the five or six pyroclastic flows that made sure that all life was extinguished. Those are terrifying because there is really no escape from them.

From a Latin scholar standpoint, I also liked reading the translations of various examples of graffiti (I laughed out loud at "I admire you, wall, for not having collapsed at having to carry the tedious scribblings of so many writers"), but it would have been nice to have the original Latin nearby for comparison.

I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in learning more about Pompeii and is perhaps not familiar with the goings-on in Rome at the time (those who know more about Ancient Rome than I do might find the discussions of Nero and Vespasian slightly repetitive). And, as stated earlier, if you've read Robert Harris's novel and are looking for a good non-fiction counterpart, this would do the job. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Jun 17, 2012 |
I did not particularly like the mix of historical fiction and history. I thought that those fiction vignettes undermined the actual research while not adding anything of interest to the story. Many chapters were devoted to Nero and Roman politics of the time, which was relevant but seemed like filler since it did not contribute much to the Pompeian narrative. On top of that the book lacked structure and seemed disjoined. I thought that Mary Beard’s work provided much better and more engaging look into the life of Pompeii. ( )
  anutany | Nov 11, 2009 |
Read after trip to Italy and Rome to provide context - on the enthusiastic recommendation from hubbie.

Details Roman life, the politics and daily routines of Romans in the twenty five years leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius.

This genre of non-fiction takes a stab at 'lighting up an era' - by providing vignettes of daily life. Known characters found on grafitti and in texts, are fictionalized in small intermissions between the facts of the period and the trivia of daily life. There is interesting detail about wine making, politics, sexual habits, slavery and freemen, business, funerals and religion, gladiators and the degeneracy of Nero. It outlines the cruelty, sophistication and exploitation of the Roman times.

Overall, I found the book to be rather disjointed and fragmented. I enjoyed the details, but found the narrative skipped about too much for my taste. The evocation of the last few hours of Pompeii was perhaps the most engaging chapter.

Nevertheless, an interesting read and a good introduction to the Roman period leading up to the end of Pompeii. ( )
  kiwidoc | May 1, 2007 |
An engaging mix of history and historical fiction grounded in the architecture, art and graffiti of the lost cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, this book will appeal to classics buffs, Roman fans and history majors. This book provides a glimpse into provincial Roman life that is new and different, and well worth the read. ( )
1 vote Meggo | Jul 17, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312355858, Hardcover)

The ash of Mt. Vesuvius preserves a living record of the complex and exhilarating society it instantly obliterated two thousand years ago. In this highly readable, lavishly illustrated book, Butterworth and Laurence marshall cutting-edge archaeological reconstructions and a vibrant historical tradition dating to Pliny and Tacitus; they present a richly textured portrait of a society not altogether unlike ours, composed of individuals ordinary and extraordinary who pursued commerce, politics, family and pleasure in the shadow of a killer volcano.  Deeply resonant in a world still at the mercy of natural disaster, Pompeii recreates life as experienced in the city, and those frantic, awful hours in AD 79 that wiped the bustling city from the face of the earth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:35 -0400)

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"Drawing together the most recent archaeological and historical research, Pompeii: The Living City offers a vivid, and unprecedented, portrait of the city during the eventful twenty-five years leading up to the eruption that destroyed it. Focusing on key individuals from each stratum of Pompeian society, a narrative emerges of the city's best and worst times, placing the reader right on the streets and in the houses, amongst the sights, smells, and sounds of the living city."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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