‘POMPEII The Living City’ by Butterworth & Laurence – A Book Review

   POMPEII – The Living City

by  Alex Butterworth & Ray Laurence

Pompeii book cover


Reviewed by Anne Frandi-Coory

(Click on images to enlarge)

About the authors:

Alex Butterworth is a writer and dramatist, who holds degrees from the University  of Oxford and the Royal College of Art. Ray Laurence is a Research Fellow in the Institute of Archaeology  and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham. He was previously a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Reading. He has published seven academic books on Roman archaeology  and history.

I bought this wonderful book a few years ago and I must admit to only now getting around to reading it. The authors have written a compelling, valuable  book for any treasured collection.  I visited the partially reconstructed Pompeii in the early nineties, and even then I was amazed at how ‘modern’ and well equipped the ancient city had been.

Archaeologists have literally dug up a plethora of data out of what’s left of Pompeii revealing so much about life within the Roman Empire. Although there is a huge amount of excavation still to take place, there is enough information gathered so far, allowing scientists to gain an intimate insight into what life was like in a Roman city at that time.

Authors Butterworth and Laurence tell us that Pompeii contains probably the greatest density of data of any archaeological site in the world, but that only augments the challenge facing contemporary scholars. The sheer volume of material that can be drawn upon, along with the shortcomings in technique and record-keeping  of many of those who have worked on the site in the past, make the task of bringing all the disparate evidence into some meaningful relationship especially difficult. But the authors have managed to achieve that brilliantly,  bringing carefully selected data  together  into an enjoyable and informative read.  

Pompeii was a city ‘full of political tensions, and very strange customs.’ It was a place where competitive merchants vied for the best customers and trade routes.  Wealthy, powerful citizens pursued all manner of pleasures. But pleasures were legal only for the rich; the poor and slaves were denied such luxury. Successful merchants and renowned magistrates owned comfortable villas along the coast, exotic goods and food at their disposal. In the meantime, Emperor Nero sinks further into murder, despotism and debauchery.  Citizens of Pompeii certainly couldn’t rely on help from their Emperor after the earthquake, although he did visit some time later. Even then, although his empire was carrying massive debt because of his spending sprees, including  the building of his golden palace, he was treated to a massive orgiastic feast in one of the few luxurious villas still left standing.

Combining  the most recent archaeological and historical research,  POMPEII’s  story sucks the reader into a vivid portrait of the doomed city during the twenty five years in which the city suffered a massive, devastating  earthquake  followed 17 years later by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius which completely destroyed the city and surrounding areas beneath it. Only the wealthy living in well-built villas could afford to have their homes and water pipes repaired so that fresh water flowed  again, in the years after the earthquake.  Others moved away before the mountain blew its top. What modern scientists have learned  about earthquakes, with the help of the latest technology, is used to compare what the eruption of Vesuvius would have been like to witness and the damage it wreaked upon its environs. There is no doubt that the earthquake caused significant damage to the land on the mountain side as well as below on the plains. The death toll from the quake would have been huge, and those bodies which could not be retrieved, created even more nauseating smells with the high risk of disease . Following the upheaval livestock died from lethal fumes boiling up from the centre of the mountain through fissures opened up by the earthquake. The smell of sulphur added to the other foul odours that citizens of every city had to endure.  And since the earthquake, the people of Pompeii also had to live through frightening aftershocks which continued right up until the eruption 17 years later.

‘The earthquake that struck Pompeii and the surrounding region on 5 February,  AD 62, is thought to have measured over 7.5 on the Richter scale. In all likelihood it was the result of an upward flow of magma within the earth’s crust along the geological fault that ran under Vesuvius: having vented its fury it then subsided before finally forcing its way out in dramatic fashion during the mountain’s eventual eruption… In the cities that bore the brunt of the devastation, Pompeii and Herculaneum, the archaeological evidence suggests that scarcely a single building was left untouched.

Snippets from a couple of paragraphs in chapter entitled ‘Apocalypse’ convey  vividly the eruption of Mt Vesuvius:

‘An eruption of such force occurs, on average, only once in a thousand years: there would have been no precedent in recorded history and mythology afforded the only point of reference. It is greatly to the credit of the Younger Pliny and his scientific training that, even while he watched his uncle set sail to his death, [while attempting to rescue citizens from the erupting volcano] he was able to categorise his observations calmly enough to produce an accurate report sometime later. His account provided the textbook case of volcanic eruptions for decades to come. ..The sight of fire and stone roaring up to the heavens that Pliny witnessed from across the bay “thrusting, bulging and uncoiling , as if the hot entrails of the earth were being drawn out and dragged towards the heavens” would have been massively more terrifying when seen from Pompeii.’



Graffiti Pompeii 1


Much graffiti written on walls around Pompeii has been found which gives further insight into what ordinary citizens thought of officials and neighbours, among other things.

Rather than the ancient graffiti and political posters that once covered the walls and summoned the flavour of the lost world, the most resonant graffiti still visible in excavated Pompeii today is perhaps that in the toilets of the cafeteria: “If I’d wanted ruins I could have gone to Kabul.” ‘

However, ancient ‘graffiti, signs and especially electoral notices offer clues as to the ownership of particular dwellings within the city walls, but in the villas outside the city evidence is usually in the form of rings with name-stamps that were left there by freedmen who were most probably their bailiffs.’

A visitor seeking directions outside the city would find help in a graffito such as –  “At Nuceria ask for Volvellia  Primigenia in the Vicus Venerius by the Rome Gate.”  According to other graffiti,  Primigenia was an especially desirable prostitute.  Pompeii’s ‘red light’ district was known as the ‘Venus District’. Political graffiti were also very common inside and outside the city walls. “For the health, return, and victory of Gaius Julius Phillipus, here, to his lares, Publius Cornelius Felix and  Vitalis Cuspius make an offering .”

What makes this book even more interesting are the many vignettes of life in real time, in which are revealed the hardships  of a few slaves, freedmen and the money worries and tasks of magistrates, taken from notes  on clay tablets:

Stories had been circulating of the deadly vapours that had poured from the cracks in the hillside the previous year engulfing the flocks but also spreading pestilence to the farms and into the city. Magonimus, a doctor, trusted in his own theories though, and was glad when he and his companion had begun their climb through the vines and towards the thinner air of the mountains.He knew how the shepherds in their hilltop cabins lived to a ripe age while the dwellers on the plain and in the marshes died young and miserable. And he was relieved for awhile to be free of the mosquitos that swarmed down below, endlessly disturbing his sleep with the angry sound of their flight. …Gazing down into the broken city, its walls and gates still in ruins Magonimus’s mind drifted to the many stricken victims of the quake whom his ministrations had failed to save – their limbs twisted and bloody, their breath rasping and their clothes soiled from terror…The doctor could not rid himself of the feeling that the whole world was ailing. Pompeii was full of rumours. It was said that the subterranean cisterns that stored rainfall from the wet months were cracked and seeping, and the landowners unable to afford their repair. Water was  scarce while wine was simply being poured away. Whether from death or sudden impoverishment, buyers were failing to collect their part paid goods and so, as the law allowed, the vignerons were throwing out thousands of gallons to make space for the coming year’s vintage. And this was only the beginning of the landowners’ troubles.

Life for slaves was harsh and many barely survived. Only the luckiest were freed in adulthood and even then, if they were once the object of their master’s sexual proclivities,   some were required to be on call whenever their ex master desired. If a slave worked in the kitchens or as waiters at drunken feasts, the only food they could consume was at the end of a long  day, when they were permitted to eat the leftovers. Slaves were commodities to be traded; men, women and children, it didn’t matter, and during orgiastic feasts, were fair game to be groped, raped, or whatever the drunken guests desired.

It was not until two years earlier when Receptus had been promoted to vilicus at Fannius Synister’s farm that he had grasped the full misery that the master’s arrival could provoke. For eleven months out of twelve, Receptus’s word was law on the estate and he was loathed for it by every slave and hired hand who worked under him. It was he who saved money by cutting the rations to the sick; he who set a day-labourer adrift the instant they’d got their feet under the table; he who drove the slaves out in the face of storms and hailstones to dig pits for manure or scrub the farmstead clean, and who ordered the beatings of those who slackened at the task.

…And now , at dawn on the fourth day of his master’s visit, Receptus found himself at the Vesuvius Gate of Pompeii, dispatched to hire day-labourers from where they gathered beside the muleteers’ inn just inside the walls; specialists to graft the vines, even though he knew that the stems weren’t ready for it and wouldn’t be for another week at least…Knowing that even the best men would fail to win Synistor’s approval, Receptus chose carefully but quickly; better not to give his master time to scrutinise the slave gangs’  performance without him there to drive them on, or to intimidate the young slave girl Chloe who had been nervous for weeks since hearing that she was to meet her master for the first time. Synistor had not yet broken the news that he had decided to take her back to Rome with him as a gift for a friend.

Only certain officials such as magistrates and priests were permitted to wear the special purple of the  toga praetexta, and a man could be put to death for disobeying this law.



Pompeii 1










The detailed index at the back of the book is a great aid for future references. With an excellent bibliography for follow-up reading. The book contains several coloured plates and helpful maps.

-Anne Frandi-Coory  13 July 2016

Also here on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/myhomelibrary/


As an aside:

While reading this book, I could not help comparing the Holy Roman Empire and its efficient bureaucracy with the Catholic Church. After all, the Catholic Church was the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the Church had centuries in which  to copy and implement many of the Empire’s cultures and laws [Canon Law]. The Catholic Church is one of the most far reaching and well organised religions in the world. Patriarchal, altar boys/slaves, temple priests, the popes as emperors in silk gowns and hats, purple also a significant colour within the Church’s hierarchy, still  today. That the Church has in modern times been engulfed in scandals relating to the rapes of hundreds of children mostly boys, over  decades, possibly centuries, adds another comparison that cannot really be ignored. – Anne Frandi-Coory

  1. Anne said:

    You are always welcome, Rita 💝


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