Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum - Highlights

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
British Museum
I can only imagine the laughs that this cheeky little chap got as he was carried out after dinner, laden with all the honey stuffed dates and sweet treats you could ever want.  With one foot forward and a wry smile on his face, you get the impression that he was trying to run away with dessert.  Clearly caught out, he looks up at the diner, hand raised in defence as if to say, "Me?  Steal dessert? Never!"  Others imagine that he is singing the praises of whatever treats he happened to be carrying.  Either way, grab what you can before he's gone!

2) Carbonised Food

As good as any Roman recipe is, this is the only actual Roman food you're ever going to see.  On display are the carbonised and mineralised remains of the figs, dates, nuts, and grains used to prepare meals in the two cities' final days.  Holding pride of place amongst the over-cooked foods is the carbonised loaf of bread found in Herculaneum.  It is stamped 'Property of Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus'. Does this stamp tell us that Celer worked in Granius' bakery and baked the bread, or does it tell us that the finished loaf was to be collected by the slave?  It's hard to say.  For a Roman food lover, these items are invaluable - for example, they confirmed that the grain resembled semolina or bulgur wheat, which is what we used when preparing ancient porridge.

3) Drinking Horn

Drinking was serious business in the ancient world; the vast array of drinking objects on display in this exhibition alone is testament to that!  There were amphorae for storing, jugs for pouring, jars for mixing, and cups, bowls, and horns for drinking.  At the wildest parties, according to Horace (Satires, II.6), one man was made the rex bibendi, or 'King of the Drinks', and could dictate how much, how often, and how quickly you drank.  Ten letters in your name?  That's ten cups for you!  Want to show off?  Why, drink from a horn of course!  At the exhibition you can find a fresco of a man doing just that, as well as the pictured drinking horn itself.

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.

6) Furniture

When I first visited the Vesuvian sites, they moved me.  Until that point I was used to roving through ruins which were ankle-high and left an awful lot to the imagination, but here were the actual houses which people lived in, the brothels they loved in, the bakeries they ate in, and the baths they washed in. These buildings had  doors and stairs and decorations which people opened, climbed, and admired.  What I found most moving, however, was the furniture - something once touched by Roman hands - and Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum has it in abundance.  There's a sturdy chest where the master of the house stored his documents and valuables; the chair his wife sat on when brushing her hair; the cradle in which his son lay, slept, and sadly died.  My favourite piece of furniture is the table shown - we see a similar one pictured in this fresco, laden with jugs of wine.  Charred and damaged this furniture might be, but there's a lot of life left in it yet.

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.


  1. Great write up, I must make time to see it for myself. Thanks.

    1. If you can, it's well worth it. If not then the book is a great substitute!

  2. Wonderful - I'm really enjoying your writeups on the exhibit!

    1. I'm glad! They don't strictly fit into the category of 'Roman Food', but are too good to miss!

  3. I had to tweet the URL to this awesome page! I also tweeted a copy to Bess Lovejoy who is a researcher on death in history and such! Thank you!