|Fun poster for the movie Pompeii (2014)|
There was plenty of warning.
There was a chance to escape.
There were no flaming rocks.
There were no rivers of lava.
And there were almost certainly no passionately kissing couples!
You know it was a Plinian eruption, named after the two Plinys, Pliny the Elder, the naturalist who died in the eruption, and Pliny the Younger, the one who wrote about it. You know all about the ash and the pyroclastic surge.
|staged reconstruction of making the casts at Pompeii|
|Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013|
|Caroline at Pompeii in January 2013|
By the end of our first hour with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill I realised he was a Myth Buster extraordinaire. Like all great historians and archaeologists, he does not accept facts just because they’ve been repeated in print a bazillion times. He has a knack for looking at things with fresh eyes and reinterpreting the evidence if necessary.
Here are ten of my most cherished beliefs: BUSTED!
|Wallace-Hadrill at Pompeii, 2013|
Myth #2 – Villa Poppea Not Owned by Nero’s Wife. The Villa at Oplontis probably wasn’t called the Villa Poppea and it probably wasn’t owned by Nero’s wife Poppaea. (Though both things might be possible.) Furthermore, the town where it’s located wasn’t called Oplontis. Or maybe it was. We just don’t know.
Myth #3 – Population of Herculaneum. Guide books often say the population of Herculaneum was 4,000 people. We simple do not know! Those who hung around were possibly vaporised by the first pyroclastic surge. This explains why so few bodies have been found in the town at the foot of Vesuvius. The only bodies we’ve found at Herculaneum were those sheltering deep underground or in the vaulted boat-houses facing the waterfront. But wait…
Myth #4 – Not Boat-houses. The famous bone-filled “boat-houses’ in Herculaneum probably weren’t boat houses. Yes, they were by the sea but they probably had a double function as foundations for the Suburban Baths and storehouses for various goods, (but probably not for boats.) Wallace-Hadrill thinks the dozens of skeletons found there were those of people sheltering from what they believed was just another earthquake. He believes there were dozens of earthquakes in the run-up to the eruption, starting with the big one in 62 CE. But wait…
Myth #5 – The Earthquake of 62. The famous earthquake of 62 CE was almost certainly in 63 CE. Scholars got the dating wrong. Tacitus tells us who the consuls were and this allows us to date it precisely.
Myth #6 – Buried Under Hot Mud! Herculaneum was NOT buried by hot mud as all the guidebooks tell you. It was buried under alternating layers of tufa (hardened ash) and lapilli (light aerated pebbles of volcanic matter). You can see it before your very eyes if you just look.
Myth #6 – Don’t Call it a thermopolium. The Romans called those fast-food places popinae or tabernae. The word thermopolium only occurs once in Plautus (a 3rd century BC Roman comic playwright). It was probably a joke word. Wallace-Hadrill, the Myth-Buster, called this a ‘dubious term’.
Myth #7 – Don’t Call it the Decumanus Maximus. Romans did not call the main road through town the Decumanus Maximus. That is a term invented by modern scholars. They probably called it Venus Street. Or Street of the Fishmarket, or similar.
Myth #8 – Don’t Call it a lararium. Romans might have worshipped Hercules or Diana there, rather than the Lares of the household. Call it a shrine, an aediculum in Latin.
Myth #9 – So-called Discovery of Pompeii. Pompeii was not really “discovered’ in the 18th century. They knew it was there but just weren’t interested or were discouraged by the church from investigating too deeply.
Myth #10 – The Phallus is Not Always Apotropaic. In Pompeii, guides will tell you that the male member points the way to brothels. Experts tell you it was a symbol of good luck, used against the ‘evil eye’. They are correct, but to bust a busted myth: sometimes the phallus did point the way to a brothel. (See picture above of a phallus on a paving stone of the Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii’s main drag.)
|Wallace-Hadrill at Herculaneum, 2013|
For those of you not lucky enough to travel to the Bay of Naples with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill as a tour guide, don’t despair. His lavishly-illustrated and clearly-written book, Herculaneum Past and Future, is now out in paperback. It is a wonderful resource.
I have written nearly thirty history-mystery books for children set in Roman times. Three of my Roman Mysteries are set on the Bay of Naples during and after the eruption of Vesuvius: The Secrets of Vesuvius, The Pirates of Pompeii and The Sirens of Surrentum. Find out more at my website: www.carolinelawrence.com
P.S. A version of this post was first published on Wonders & Marvels in February 2013, a month after our trip to the Bay of Naples.