Life and death (and sex and sewage) in a Roman town

Dec 14, 2010
Life and death (and sex and sewage) in a Roman town

Forget your preconceptions about the civilised, sparkling, white cityscapes of the ancient world: Real-life Pompeii was an altogether more sordid proposition, as Cambridge classicist Mary Beard is set to explain.

In an hour-long documentary on BBC Two tonight, Professor Beard will draw on some of the latest finds, as well as her own experience researching and Ancient Rome, to uncover little-known facts and bust some long-standing myths about the most famous excavation site in the western world.

The programme, Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town, starts with a simple premise - that an ancient town known best for the disaster in which it was destroyed, actually tells us most about how the average Roman lived.

Rather than focus on the of Mount in AD79, therefore, Professor Beard instead examines the details of daily life revealed by the buildings, skeletons and other remains which were preserved when Pompeii was buried under several feet of .

In particular, the documentary draws on new evidence from a single find: 54 skeletons which were found in a cellar in Oplontis, three miles from Pompeii's centre.

Using the latest , researchers have been able to answer key questions about the lives of these people - including how well-nourished they were and what diseases they had survived.

Sex itself is one of the recurring themes in Professor Beard's investigation into the lives of around 12,000 people who inhabited what she describes as a bustling resort town that resembled "a cross between Las Vegas and Brighton".

The remnants of Roman graffiti found on the site, which are replete with lewd talk and sexual gossip, combine with erotic posters and dubious frescoes to reveal just what a sexualised bunch the Pompeiians of the first century AD were.

Contrary to the gleaming, elegant Hollywood image of the Roman world, the town was also far from clean. Rather, Beard shows it to have been a foul-smelling, noisy place, where stepping stones had to be placed on the streets so that pedestrians could negotiate the fetid water that periodically flowed down them.

Even the baths - supposedly civilised centres of cleansing, lacked some basic features modern bathers would consider essential. Beard points out the shortage of plugholes in particular - meaning that bathers most likely often immersed themselves in a mixture of water, sweat, urine and bacteria.

Yet more evidence comes from a surviving cesspit at Herculaneum, close to Pompeii. Guided by Andrew Wallace Hadrill, the Master of Sidney Sussex College, who has excavated the site, Beard inspects the surviving contents of ancient Roman lavatories and finds out what ordinary Pompeiians had for breakfast.

Explore further: Changing dinosaur tracks spurs novel approach

More information: Professor Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Newnham College. Tonight's documentary is based on her book, Pompeii: The life of a Roman town, which is published by Profile. The programme itself will be shown on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Rare painted Roman-era statute is found

Mar 27, 2006

Scientists have found a Roman statue with its colors preserved, detailing for the first time a Roman woman wearing make-up, the London Times reported.

Italy: More building collapses at Pompeii possible

Nov 08, 2010

(AP) -- More buildings inside the ancient Roman city of Pompeii could collapse, Italy's culture minister said Sunday, a day after a 2,000-year-old house once used by gladiators disintegrated into rubble.

Identity of Pompeii's mystery horse revealed

Nov 03, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The identity of a mysterious breed of "horse" which has baffled experts since its remains were uncovered at Pompeii has been resolved by a Cambridge University researcher – who realised ...

Roman artifacts found in Swedish graves

Nov 09, 2006

Shards of Roman ceramics found in ancient graves in western Sweden suggest there was more contact between the Romans and Swedes than thought.

Recommended for you

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

12 hours ago

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

13 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Newlyweds, be careful what you wish for

A statistical analysis of the gift "fulfillments" at several hundred online wedding gift registries suggests that wedding guests are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying an appropriate gift for the ...

Can new understanding avert tragedy?

As a boy growing up in Syracuse, NY, Sol Hsiang ran an experiment for a school project testing whether plants grow better sprinkled with water vs orange juice. Today, 20 years later, he applies complex statistical ...

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...