Must admit that I far prefer the American title of the book to the British one. Doesn't "the Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found" sound far more exciting than "Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town"? Whatever the title, the review makes the books sound like a must have in my library.
Mary Beard uses the relics buried by the eruption of AD79 (the fish-weighing scales and flour mills, the gladiators' helmets and grafitti) to bring everyday Roman culture alive.
Beard covers the big public issues - economy and government, gods, games - and animates them superbly by tying them to the biographies of real Pompeiians: the heart-throb gladiator Celadus, the well-connected local worthy Marcus Holconius Priscus, and the warty banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus. She is most interested, however, in the domestic and the intimate. In the excellent chapter on painting and decorating, she doesn't just analyse Pompeiian style, she opens up cupboards to count the paint pots and turn over the spoons and spatulas. She doesn't only describe the grander rooms with their fantastical frescoes and deep tones of “Pompeiian red”, she explores the corridors and service quarters, revealing the ferocious zebra-stripe colour scheme “which would not have looked wholly out of place in the 1960s”.
Pompeii's smells must have been no less vibrant than its colours. The 20,000-seater amphitheatre had no lavatory. Huge local fortunes were built on a kind of fermented (rotted, some say) fish sauce. As for the Roman baths, they were apparently “a seething mass of bacteria”, which weren't regarded as safe to enter with an open wound. Cleanliness aside, they sound closer in spirit to a 1970s San Francisco bathhouse than, say, today's sleek spas.
Rome's famed hygienic fastidiousness is not the only classical myth that Beard delights in busting. Togas, when they were worn at all, came in fierce colours, not just white. Losing gladiators were much more likely to survive than be killed. And if the cramped dining rooms and minuscule kitchens of Pompeii are any guide, the decadent banquet of the celluloid imagination was probably a rare affair. The notorious dormice dipped in honey really were a Pompeiian treat - the jars found with internal, premoulded dormouse exercise runs prove it - but the wealthy largely made do with a “finger buffet” of bread, olives and cheese, perhaps with sausages and black pudding. The poor, it seems, dined out at simple cafes.
Most shockingly, the Romans were not quite as morbidly hypersexual as we like to imagine. The Stabian Baths were indeed brightened up by athletic-erotic scenes - including depictions of both a trio and a foursome. Carved phalluses and boastfully obscene graffiti really are found everywhere. But much of what has been called erotic, Beard protests, is more “a familiar and slightly edgy mixture of sex, drink and play” than evidence of “terrible moral turpitude”.