With hundreds of items on display, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is a treasure trove for anybody with even the slightest bit of interest in Roman history. This makes picking 'highlights' rather difficult. To make things easier, and because this is a Roman food website, my first five items are related to Roman wining and dining. To show that there's more to life than just food, however, I've included three bonus objects at the bottom. To all those lucky enough to attend, have fun hunting them out. To all those unable to go, here's a taste of what is on show:
1) Placentarius - Cake Tray
|© Trustees of the |
2) Carbonised Food
3) Drinking Horn
4) Skeleton Butler
The meaning of the Skeleton Butler is perhaps best illustrated by a story in Horace's Satires; in this story a mouse from the city tries to convince his country bumpkin rodent friend to abandon his hard life in the countryside, and to enjoy a life of wining and dining in the city. The city mouse, a rather eloquent chap, says:
"All earthly creatures have been given mortal souls;
large or small they have no means of escaping death.
So, my dear friend,while there's still time, enjoy the good things
of life, and never forget your days are numbered." - Horace, Satires, II.6
We're all going to die, so why not enjoy life first? With a skeleton pouring your next cup of wine, how could you possibly forget?
5) Glirarium - The Dormouse Jar
You have this great house at the bottom of a jar. Even better, once a day a hand appears from the heavens and drops some acorns in at the top! You roll out of your cosy straw nest, stretch a bit, and then scamper up to the top of the jar to get some treats. Scampering is getting quite tough, as you're putting on a lot of weight, but that doesn't matter too much - you're living the dormouse dream. That kind, gift-giving hand starts to reach into the jar again. More treats already? Not this time - before you can say 'squeak' you've been scooped up, thrown into a pan, covered in honey, peppered with poppy seeds, and gobbled up by some wealthy senator. Your house, it turns out, was a glirarium, used solely to fatten up dormice for eating.
7) Fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife
With history it is usually a case of us looking in at the past, but with this fresco we find two Romans staring back out at us. Posing for us are Terentius Neo, a Pompeiian baker with a patchy beard, and his good lady wife. Terentius has donned a toga, suggesting that he has embarked on a career in Pompeiian politics. His wife wields a wax tablet, used by Romans for writing and recording the day's dealings - perhaps she took over the running of the bakery? Whatever message the painter is trying to convey, I think that this fresco is a must-see, as it affords us a rare look at two real-life Roman citizens.
8) Pompeiian Plaster Casts
|© Trustees of the British Museum|
Nothing is so synonymous with Pompeii as the plaster casts of the dead. When Vesuvius erupted, a column of ash rose into the air, growing higher and higher and higher still. Eventually this column collapsed, and clouds of hot gas and burning ash raged through the Campanian countryside as pyroclastic flows. The one that hit Herculaneum was hot enough to burn bodies to the bone. The one that hit Pompeii, however, was not. Those that died lay as they fell, buried by ash and stone and volcanic debris. This soon set, and although the bodies buried within decayed, their every little detail was imprinted in the ash. The casts we see today were created when some bright spark decided to pour plaster, and later resin, into the hollows. The British Museum is displaying several casts, ranging from a little doggy to a whole family. By the time you get to the casts at the exhibition's end, you've seen the lives these people led, and if you're like me, you've grown quite fond of them. To then stare into what would have been a father's eyes, or watch as his child claws at walls which are no longer there, is quite a harrowing and humbling experience.