A Bitter Pill

When I first became aware that there was to be a fictional work (a triliogy no less!) based in the lupanar of Pompeii, my reaction was somewhat… disdainful. It is, I think anyone with considerable expertise would admit, incredibly difficult to consume popular culture that aims to accurately replicate your specialist subject. Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching Troy, Gladiator, or The Mummy with a Classicist knows exactly what I am talking about. Beyond the fact that I have spent the majority of the last twenty years focused on Pompeii, I have done extensive research on women and prostitution in the Roman world, including reviewing the definitive work on the brothel itself. Therefore, when a friend offered to lend me a copy of The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper, I was reluctant. I started reading fully expecting to hate it.

I didn’t.

Yes, there are inaccuracies. But let’s be honest – a work of fiction written with the aim of a high degree of factual historic and archaeologic content would probably be a bit boring for most people. It is clear the author did research: chapters begin with appropriate quotes from Latin literature, much of the physical space of Pompeii is described with some level of accuracy, and various real names known from the epigraphic record are included within the story. Pliny the Elder stays in town for a bit, borrowing a residence from a friend that is clearly meant to be the House of the Faun. There is a duovir named Fuscus both in the novel and amongst the evidence from Pompeii (both placed in the last decade of the city’s life). CIL IV 3592 names a Lucius Laelius Fuscus who is running for that office. Evidence for this man also exists as a campaign notice for the office of aedile (CIL IV 102) and four times as a witness in the tablets of Iucundus (CIL IV 3340. 13, 15, 35, 103). A caupona, commonly referred to as The Elephant by archaeologists because of a wall painting of the animal and a graffito that says ‘Sittius restored the elephant’ (CIL IV 806) is frequented by characters of the book. This illustrates some attention to detail, as the inn, located at VII.i.44, is a few doors away from the brothel at VII.xii.18.

There are numerous references to real Pompeian graffiti, including an episode where the prostitutes themselves collectively carry out adding an inscription to the walls of the brothel (p. 36-7). They write about a rather odorific customer whom they dub ‘Mr. GarlicFarticus.’ This is an accurate translation of the name Scordopordonicus, a compound of two Greek words.

CIL IV 2188
Scordopordonicus hic bene / fu(tu)it quem voluit.
‘Scordopordonicus here fucks well who he wished.’

There are other uses of graffiti that are quite touching, such as the exchange of scratched messages between two slaves. As is well known, conversations greeting friends carried out on the walls of the city is one of the most prevalent types of graffiti. In the context of The Wolf Den this is conducted in Greek as the slaves, both of whom were born free and enslaved later in life, establish a degree of agency by communicating in their own language and using their original names. Giving a purchased slave a new name is not an uncommon occurrence, but there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to language. Latin and Greek names are both used, and more often than not the name is not a reflection of the ethnic origin of the individual.

Naming, however, is my one real issue with this book. The main character is an enslaved woman of Greek origin who, when purchased and made a prostitute, is given the name Amara. Harper explains the name as one reflective of the woman’s overall demeanour in the eyes of her owner/pimp. She is ‘halfway between love and bitterness’ (p. 245). There no halfway about it. The adjective amarus (a, um) means bitter, disagreeable, shrill. This is not a word one would use to describe someone who you want to have sex with, paying customer or not.

Whilst it is difficult to tease out the patterns of naming of slaves generally, there are some professions, largely amongst the infamia, where naming conventions are adhered to. Prostitution is one of them. The names (or stage names, if you will) assigned promote beauty, luck, or refer to some aspect of potential gratification. This can be taken beyond the lupanar as well, as there were also particular names used for high class courtesans, many of which were idealised through the repetition of the names of lovers used by elegists such as Propertius and Ovid. In her book on the brothel of Pompeii, Sarah Levin-Richardson explains (p. 61):

‘It is possible that Victoria was a stage name giving her an aura of “victory” in the brothel; that Fortuna and Fortunata might have been meant to feel “lucky” themselves or bring luck to others; and that Mola was a “grindstone” in bed.’

She lists ‘other potential stage names’ such as Panta (All: CIL IV 2178b), Helpis (Hope: CIL IV 2189), Felicla [= Felicula] (Happy: CIL IV 2199, 2200), Mola (Grindstone: CIL IV 2204, 2237), Victoria (Victory: CIL IV 2212), and Fortuna/ata (Fortune: CIL IV 2224, 2259, 2266, 2275). She concludes that ‘[t]hese names were probably given to the prostitutes by a master, pimp, or madam, though some prostitutes may have chosen these monikers themselves. Some names may not have been intended specifically as stage names – many are common names for female slaves – though they may have been interpreted as such by those in the brothel regardless’ (p. 118).

The names of the other prostitutes (female and male) used by Harper such as Victoria, Dido, and Paris fit into the general schematic of naming slaves involved in sex work. As much as it seems to have been chosen specifically to reflect the personality of the character, or more to the point, her reaction to the current circumstances of her life, I find it very difficult to reconcile a prostitute named Amara with what is known about names. The evidence we have suggests that prostitutes in the ancient world, much like today, were meant to entice, to appear available and eager, and fulfilled a function that was both sexual and emotionally gratifying. For the Romans, this meant assigning names that reflected these qualities.

Fundamentally then, a sex worker named Bitter is a major marketing problem, and for that reason alone would never exist.

As much as the name irks me, the story is good and I’m looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

The Tomb of Marcus Venerius Secundio

By now it seems the entire world is aware of the most recent discovery in Pompeii, a tomb located in the necropolis of the Porta Sarno to the east of the city. Having spent so many years investigating the funerary monuments of Pompeii myself, I am thrilled that new material is being excavated (even if it does make my book somewhat outdated. Hmm… second edition maybe?) I (along with others) have always known there were many, many more tombs to discover in the environs of the city. We should all do well to remember that modern Pompei sits atop most of ancient Pompeii’s dead.

There is, however, much excitement about this particular find, and rightfully so, because it contains a variety of evidence that is unique, and in some cases, previously unattested. Some of this new information comes from the inscription:

M(arcus) Venerius coloniae
lib(ertus) Secundio, aedituus
Veneris, Augustalis et min(ister)
eorum. Hic solus ludos Graecos
et Latinos quadriduo dedit.

‘Marcus Venerius Secundio, freedmen of the colony, guardian of the temple of Venus, Augustalis and minister of them. He, on his own, gave Greek and Latin games for four days.

Photo from Pompeii – Parco Archeologico.

One item that has ancient historians taking notice is the specific mention of Greek games – something that has been speculated about but was heretofore unconfirmed as taking place in the theatres of Pompeii.  Georgy Kantor provides a brief exposition on the significance of this. A freedman of the city, Venerius Secundio’s involvement in the worship of Venus, the patron goddess of Pompeii, the evident wealth he obtained that allowed him to sponsor entertainments, and membership of the Augustales are all elements that serve to enhance our understanding of the civic and religious life of the city (and thus, other communities in the Roman world.)

Marcus Venerius Secundio appears in only one other text from Pompeii, one of the wax tablets of Caecilius Iucundus (CIL 4.3340.139). He is included here with two other well known men – Decimius Lucretius Valens and Marcus Stronnius Secundus, which provides a date of the mid AD 50s. The tomb, as it has been described, probably dates to the 60s or early 70s. There is, however, further epigraphic evidence from the monument as a columella was also found marking the burial of a beautiful glass urn, bearing the name of Novia Amabilis. This is a new name to add to the Pompeian prosopography, as no female members of this gens are otherwise attested. There is a single graffito naming a Novius (CIL X 10136), and one naming a Lucius Novius Priscus.

CIL IV 2155
C(aius) Cominius Pyrrichus et  
L(ucius) Novius Priscus et L(ucius) Campius
Primigenius fanatici tres
a pulvinar(i) Synethaei
hic fuerunt cum Martiale
sodale Actiani Anicetiani
sinceri Salvio sodali feliciter.

Although there is some debate about how exactly this should be translated, the general consensus (which is not quite as cryptic as Franklin suggests) is that Novius Priscus and his friends Gaius Cominius Pyrrichus and Lucius Campius Primigenius, three rabid fans of Actius Anicetus, a well known pantomimist, greet some of their other mates. The idea of linking into the same family Novia Amabilis, buried in the tomb of a sponsor of Greek and Latin theatre spectacles and Lucius Novius Priscus, a devotee of a local star of the stage, is admittedly quite an attractive one.

Of course, the one thing I have not yet mentioned is the skeleton. Found in a small cell at the rear of the tomb, there is no doubt it is the best preserved set of human remains yet discovered in the ancient city. Hair! An Ear! Maybe DNA! Heady stuff, to be sure. But what I haven’t yet seen mentioned is what an anomaly it is to actually find a skeleton in a tomb in Pompeii. Prior to Roman colonisation in 80 BC, inhumation was the standard Samnite / Italic form of burial. Graves such as these have been discovered, but they weren’t monumental structures built (primarily) above ground. With the Romans came monumental tomb building and cremation. After all, there are two sets of remains found in the tomb of Marcus Venerius Secundio that are cremated, deposited in urns, including that of Novia Amabilis. What this means is a large above ground tomb from the Roman colonial period containing a skeleton is unheard of in Pompeii.

The simple fact of a skeleton existing in a Pompeian tomb (regardless of its state of preservation) is the most incredible thing about this latest find. I hope someone else notices that.

Edited to add: A new video has been released by the Parco Archeologico di Pompei that shows more clearly the small vaulted chamber that contains the skeleton, which was hermetically sealed when excavated. This shows that this is, in fact, an intentional inhumation and reveals a new type of burial, never seen before in Pompeii.

Floored

Earlier this week it was announced that the Italian Ministry of Culture is planning to build a floor in the Colosseum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction from archaeologists and historians is a bit mixed. There is an understandable concern about the mechanisms of the floor and the impact on the structure. How the floor is integrated into the existing architecture is one issue, but the potential harm of the footfalls of the annual influx of six million tourists across the floor, or future structural changes necessary to host cultural events or re-enactments is also a necessary consideration. The official statements about the floor have attested to a low-impact and sustainable plan, going so far to say that the floor could be removed in the future with no lasting effect on the ancient remains. Their aim is to not only provide the view from the centre of the arena floor that those engaged in ancient games would have had, but also to allow the amphitheatre to be used for modern stagings. This is hardly a new or innovative idea: the theatres in Pompeii and Verona have been renovated and used in this manner for years. In the most general terms, as far as it is possible to discern from the limited information, this seem like a very good thing.

What surprised me was that a fair bit of the negative reaction to the plan is that there should be a floor at all, as if this will somehow diminish the experience of the Colosseum as a whole. I found this to be at odds with the design, which seems to be comprised of wooden slats that can be rotated and retracted, thus allowing a view into the hypogeum below, as well as to open the subterranean galleries up entirely.

A full video of how this will work, from which the above images were taken, can be viewed here.

Late on the day of the announcement I was contacted by TimesRadio for an interview about this. I had a very (very!) brief conversation with John Pienaar (somewhere around the one hour mark) about the way the subterranean level of the amphitheatre was used by the Romans. (And yes, of course Gladiator was referenced, but not by me.) Not knowing what I was going to be asked, I had a quick review of Colosseum facts, and this only furthered my consternation about objections to the idea of a floor. The Flavian Amphitheatre, as it was designed in the first century AD, had a floor. In fact, the floor existed for centuries, and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that hundreds of years of debris and accumulated detritus were finally removed from the ancient floor and subterranean space of the hypogeum. In other words, the Colosseum has had a floor for significantly longer than it hasn’t had one.

The Colosseum was used, as originally intended, for about 500 years. The floor and the hypogeum were integral to putting on the gladiator contests, hunts of wild animals, and sea battles that were held there. The subterranean structures were, as I said on the radio, akin to the backstage elements of a modern theatre: scenery and props held at the ready, places for the next performer to wait (whether man or beast), utilising a series of trapdoors, cages, pulleys and weights, and tunnels connected to the gladiator barracks of the Ludus Maximus across the street, as well as to the stables for the animals. As with any large, heavily used building, there were repairs and alterations made at many points, some the result of the changing needs of those using the structure, some as a result of disasters like earthquakes and fire. A lightning strike caused a fire in AD 217, according to Dio Cassius (78.25), destroying upper levels of wooden seating that was not fully repaired for decades. The last record of repairs were for damage caused by an earthquake in 484, when the consul Decius Marius Venantius Basilius erected an inscription to record this work (CIL VI 1716). Gladiator fights were banned in the late 4th century and again in the 5th, but wild animal hunts continued well into the 6th century, when the consulship of Anicius Maximus was celebrated with such an event.

After that…. ? The bare bones of the Colosseum survive, but it is re-used and abused for centuries. It is rumoured it became a dumping ground for the bodies of criminal elements in the Middle Ages. One end housed a religious order from the mid-14th until the 19th century. There were workshops and a Christian shrine, and at one point, a fortress housed by nobles. The building itself was stripped, the spolia of travertine and marble used to build elsewhere, or burned to make quicklime. The bronze clamps holding the stonework together were also stripped for use. Another earthquake brought down the southern side of the building in the 14th century. This is why the Colosseum appears as it does today – no longer a gleaming white façade, pockmarked and scarred. In the 16th century the Church got interested, and tried to use the building for new purposes. Pope Sixtus V wanted to turn it into a wool factory to employ the prostitutes of the city, which I think unsurprisingly, failed. In the 17th century a cardinal suggested holding bullfights, but this was an unpopular suggestion. It was in the 18th century that the Colosseum was endorsed as a sacred site for Christians, with Pope Benedict XIV forbidding its continued use as a quarry and consecrating the building and including it in the Stations of the Cross, a tradition that still continues today as part of the processions held on Good Friday.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that interest in the Colosseum as an ancient artefact really took hold. It was then that the first works were undertaken to repair the structure, shoring up both the exterior walls and repairing the interior. This included the first attempts to clear the hypogeum, which had, in the intervening centuries, become well-documented for its abundance of different species of plants. From the first attempts to catalogue the flora, more than 600 types were identified. Eventually, this too was a concern, because of the destructive impact the vegetation had on the structure itself. And so, from the mid 1800s, any remaining bits of floor and the debris accumulated in the substructure were cleared. The project was finally completed in the 1930s during Mussolini’s push to reinvigorate Ancient Rome.

The Colosseum, as anyone has experienced it over the last century, is not what it was. Adding a floor is, in some ways, a small step towards repairing what is lost, and does offer a potential to use the space in a way it hasn’t been for centuries. Monuments are, as odd as it sounds, ever changing. I have been to the Colosseum enough times over the years to have been there when there was no flooring at all, when the hypogeum was closed to the public, and when the upper levels were forbidden. All of those things have changed since I first went to Rome in high school. More to the point, I keep comparing my memories of my visit down into the hypogeum (with the expert on the subject no less) to that of one to the other Flavian amphitheatre, the one in Pozzuoli. It has a floor. It has a similar substructure. Being in the enclosed space of that hypogeum, wandering in and out of the cells and cages, feeling a bit lost in the relative dark and small space, gave me a huge sense of what it was like to be down there two thousand years ago. I can’t help but think that experience is one worth replicating in Rome.

Exhibiting Roman Women Online

Portrait of Vibia Sabina, c. AD 130

Like most of the world, it has been an unusually long time since I was last able to venture out to visit a museum. As everyone has come so much more reliant on the digital world in the last year, quite a few museums are making more effort to make their collections available online and open access. This is wonderful, whether you are looking for a specific object for the purposes of research, or just want a good browse. The potential then, to also have exhibits online, is increasing, and as such I thought it worth highlighting one currently available, not just for its content, but also in terms of navigability and ease of use.

Currently, the Uffizi Gallery is hosting an exhibit entitled: Imperatrici, matrone, liberte (Empresses, Matrons, Freedwomen: Portraits and Secrets of the Women of Ancient Rome) that offers a 360 degree virtual tour. (It does seem to have the ability to connect with a VR headset as well). It is relatively easy to navigate as a whole. Click on one of the circles on the floor of the room to move around, or on one of the markers next to the object for a link to its catalogue entry, as can be seen in this image (tip: at the top of the webpage is an option to change between Italian and English in the catalogue). The information boards are in Italian and English and it is possible to navigate closely so that they may be read. A short film running on the wall of the second room has a link to the video on YouTube.

The exhibit covers the first two centuries of Imperial rule and comprises three parts: negative examples of women who defy the expectation of the matron, the model of proper Roman womanhood as exemplified by women of the Imperial family and ordinary women emulating that ideal, and finally the public acts of euergetism, patronage, and service in a religious context that members of the ruling family undertook. The two rooms housing the exhibit are filled with portrait busts, tombstones, manuscripts, and drawings. Some of the items (particularly the manuscripts) are not linked to any further information, which is slightly frustrating as it is not entirely clear why they are included. As far as I can tell, the pages on display are drawings ranging from the 16th to 18th century of the objects themselves, both as studies of the artwork and as records of past displays in the museum. Drawings contained in the second room are plans and illustrations of many of the buildings commissioned by Imperial women.

I think my favourite thing about this small collection is that there are two acts of erasure on display, but for very different reasons. The first is a damnatio memoriae. I’ve written previously about this kind of erasure in terms of the condemnation of figures from the ancient and early modern past. In the first instance, the altar of a young Junia Procula contains this kind of alteration. The name of her mother has been removed from the third line of the dedicatory inscription (CIL VI 20905):

Dis Manibus / Iuniae M(arci) f(iliae) Proculae vix(it) ann(os) VIII m(enses) XI d(ies) V miseros / patrem et matrem in luctu reliqui<t> fecit M(arcus) Iuniu[s M(arci) l(ibertus)?] / Euphrosynus sibi et [- – -]e. Tu sine filiae et parent{i}um in u[no ossa] / requ(i)escant quidquid nobis feceris idem tibi speres mihi crede tu tibi testis [eris].

‘To the Manes of Junia Procula, daughter of Marcus, lived 8 years, 11 months and 5 days, leaving her ill-starred parents to mourn. Marcus Junius Euphrosinus, [freedman of Marcus?] made (this) for himself and [[for Junia Acte]]. May the bones of the daughter and of the parents rest together. May you hope that what you have done to us be done also unto you. Believe me, you yourself [will be] witness to this.’

On the reverse of the altar, there is a clue as to why the name of Junia’s mother was erased:

Hic stigmata aeterna Acte libertae scripta sunt vene/nariae et perfidae dolosae duri pectoris clav<o>m et restem / sparteam ut sibi collum alliget et picem candentem / pectus malum com<b>urat suum. Manumissa grati(i)s / secuta adulterum patronum circumscripsit et / ministros ancillam et puerum lecto iacenti / patrono abduxit ut animo desponderet solus / relictus spoliatus senex. E(t) Hymno {f}<e>ade(m) sti(g)m(a)ta / secutis / Zosimum.

‘Let what is written stand as an everlasting curse on freedwoman Atte, evil and heartless poisoner and deceiver: let nails and a cordgrass rope bind her neck and boiling pitch burn her wicked breast. She was released without payment, not against her will, and left with her lover; she tricked her master and while he lay in bed, ill, she took away his maid and the young slave who assisted him, causing such pain that the old man, left alone, abandoned and robbed, lost heart. Let the same curse also fall on Imno and on those who followed Zosimus.’

This is, for all intents and purposes, a defexio, which was not a common thing to appear on a tomb. More to the point, being able to be read by another negates the efficacy of the curse, so that displaying it in this way is more about a public condemnation than a private desire for revenge. I can think of only one other (though less explicit) example of a funerary curse in the secondary inscription on the tomb of Publius Vesonius Phileros in Pompeii.

The second is a change in name, visible on the fragmentary dedication of a temple in Terracina. Originally put up by Livia and her son Tiberius sometime during the years between his ascension to the principate (AD 14) and her death (AD 29), the temple was rededicated and the inscription altered during the reign of Claudius. At this time, having been deified by her grandson, Livia was erased, and Diva Augusta carved in its place. As the Uffizi holds only a cast, it is much more clear in the original inscription (CIL 10.6309), held by the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Firenze.

Ironically, there is also an erasure/addition in the epitaph of Publius Vesonius Phileros, who added a new title as well, in his case he became an Augustalis.

Small though it is, this exhibit does encapsulate an impressive and varied collection of materials that present a brief glimpse into the many ways women were presented in the early years of the Imperial period. As an online tour, it works quite well, and I would be happy to see more of this type of thing in the future, not only because of ongoing lockdowns and travel bans, but because of the opportunity to visit, even virtually, many more exhibits around the world.

Ladies Who Lunch

When I wrote a post last month about approaches to women’s history, I included as an image a wall painting from Pompeii that depicts an all female dinner party. I chose it simply for the lack of men present, but I wanted to return to it briefly, as there is much about it that intrigues me. It’s possible I have encountered this particular painting in past visits to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, but it didn’t grab my attention until I saw it in 2019 as part of the Ashmolean’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibit.

From 1.13.18, MANN inv. 9016.

The depiction of a convivium – a Roman dinner party – in wall paintings is hardly unusual. There are many versions of this from across Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere. Archaeologists and historians have picked many of these images apart, looking at textiles, drinking vessels, postures, the arrangement of bodies, and the composition of the dinner party. I suspect that mixed company is the standard, as is seen in this fresco, not coincidentally found in the same building as the one above.

From 1.13.18, MANN inv. 9015.

Here we have two couples reclining on triclinia, the standard expectation for Roman dining. Evidence from literary sources leaves some debate about the position women took – either sitting upright (Valerius Maximus 2.1.2) or reclined as men (Cic. Att. 5.1), with some suggestion that those reclining were of lower social or legal status. This does not seem to be the case in the painting of only women, where figures are sitting, standing, and at least two are reclining, seen to the left and slightly behind the woman playing an aulos.

The richness of silver vessels, the fabrics and soft furnishings throughout the room, the clothing and hair accessories, and the overall ambiance cannot be denied. This very clearly depicts women at leisure, engaged in the same kind of otium that was very much part of the elite aristocratic male norm. The wealth of the women shown here is also evident in the pair of slaves, watching the scene from behind a curtain.

They may seem ambiguous at a quick glance, simply another pair of women who are at this party. However, their matching dresses, hairtsyles, headbands, and bracelets are more akin to a kind of uniform, indicating these women are most likely slaves of the household. I find this detail extraordinary: there are often attendants or observers in the background of wall paintings, but I cannot think of another example that is this clear in ascribing servile status to those depicted.

Finally, what I find even more intriguing about both these dining scenes, is their location in what has been identified as the Fullonica of Sestius Venustus, (I.3.15-16, 18) on the Vicolo del Menandro. Originally excavated in phases in the mid 19th century, this is a series of small interconnected workshops that were likely some combination of fullers and dyers. Two of the structures contain evidence for large hearths/furnaces, and tubs built atop podiums that could have been used in the process of cleaning or dying clothing. There is, of course, some issue with the designation of the name of the shop – Matteo Della Corte originially claimed CIL IV 1082 was a dipinto naming Sestius Venustus, which has subsequently been re-edited as Segius Venustus Ofnoedn. Regardless of who, the what does seem fairly clear, as the archaeological remains do seem indicative of textile work, and this is a neighbourhood littered with small workshops and shops. Furthermore, whilst it is not unusual by any means to find a workshop or fullery with a detailed decorative scheme (see, for example, the Fullonica of Stephanus), it does seem a little odd to find depictions of what appear to be quite lavish convivia in what is an otherwise rather plain space. Apart from some block colouring in a niche, likely a lararium, in the adjacent structure (doorway 15), no other decoration or finds are recorded. They seem out of place somehow. The choice of images could be indicative of certain aspirations for a non-working life, where the owner was engaged in more otium than laundry. Perhaps the buildings have been mis-identified and were involved with food production rather than fullery. Or maybe, the commissioner simply got stuck in the dining section of the painter’s selection book. In any case, the choice of an all female dining party remains unusual, and that in and of itself makes this notable.


Addendum: As was pointed out to me on Twitter, this painting could also refer to Menander’s Synaristosai, which is often translated alternately as ‘Women lunching together’ or ‘Women at breakfast,’ and has been depicted in mosaics, one of which was found in the so-called villa of Cicero in Pompeii.

Re-writing Women’s History

Women at a dinner party from the Fullonica of Sestius Venustus, I.3.18.

On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, it seems an opportune time to consider something about how we approach women in ancient history and archaeology. I am hardly one who would normally consider myself an expert on gender studies, nor am I well versed in the appropriate theory. But that certainly doesn’t prevent women from appearing in my research, sometimes quite prominently, and when they do, I often find myself disappointed, if not a bit enraged by the results. I have often said there are certain areas of study where logic seems to fly out the window and this is certainly one of them – assumptions are made (not exclusively by male scholars I should add) – about how women would have behaved, their importance or influence in ancient life, and their ability to have agency. In my work on Pompeii, I have encountered this time and again in regards to funerary commemoration, the epigraphic record, especially in regards to the ability or to read and write graffiti, and in political engagement to name just a few areas.

Take, for example, Naevoleia Tyche, a woman I wrote about extensively in my first book. She and her husband have two separate tombs on opposite sides of the city. The conclusion has always been that he died first, and she, being the stereotypical nouveau riche freedwoman, wasn’t happy with the fairly humble structure and built her own more lavish tomb. Except if you crawl around the back (careful – brambles!) of the monument built by her husband, you discover that it was built as a single structure with the neighbouring tomb, its twin in design, that belongs to a fellow member of the Augustales. Add in the award of a civic honour to the husband, and the interpretation changes entirely. She is not a dissatisfied upwardly mobile bitch: her husband probably honoured an agreement with his friend in building the first tomb, and then the other was built to include his new honours and establish a more substantial (and yes, status grabbing) monument for their heirs. As the tombs were built in the same decade, it is just as likely he was involved as he wasn’t. It is impossible to know, but the assumption, which is more likely than not based on more modern ideas about women and wealth, remains nonetheless. And this irks me.

In the back of my mind somewhere there is, therefore, this sort of constant niggling thought about how to do better when it comes to presenting the women of antiquity, and I admit I have struggled at times to do it as I would like, both in my research and my teaching. Occasionally though, there are moments in research where you have a half formed idea about a theory or an approach, and then you come across something that helps it all fall into place. It is revelatory  – a moment of clarity – allowing you to not only move forward with your research, but also changing your thinking in a significant way. For me, this happened last year with the nearly simultaneous reading of two books on Roman women: Anise K. Strong’s Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World (2016) and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s The Brothel of Pompeii (2019), the latter of which I read in part for a review in the Journal of Roman Studies.

It might seem obvious to suggest these two books intersect significantly. After all, they are both fundamentally concerned with prostitution in the Roman world. But it is not necessarily the subject that is important here, but rather the method by which the topic is approached. Both scholars are logical. They approach the evidence as evidence, and evaluate it for what it is. I realise that sounds like what we, as researchers are supposed to do, but it doesn’t always happen that way, especially when it comes to women. For example, there are a large number of women whose names appear in the electoral dipinti of Pompeii. Henrik Mouritsen has dismissed them repeatedly as insignificant. Women can’t vote, so have no role to play in politics. He doesn’t really provide a decent explanation for why women would be involved in the programmata, and does not appear to think they are even worth mentioning in an attempt to understand the political life of Pompeii. He all but erases them. In his effort to document the graffiti of the city, Matteo Della Corte decided that if a woman’s name appeared in a graffito, she was most likely a prostitute. If her name appeared more than once (even though, due to the nature of graffiti, it might not actually be the same individual) she was definitely a whore. Never mind the fact that women did inscribe graffiti themselves, and could have signed her own name in the same way countless men did.

Logic, therefore, hasn’t always been applied.

For both Strong and Levin-Richardson, however, logic is the rule. This is not only a hugely refreshing change in scholarship, but to my mind, is the way forward. Strip back the ideas that have been formed over the last two hundred years, and start from the beginning. Look at the evidence as evidence, not as evidence for women or prostitutes or whatever category it may be. Go where that leads.

The brothel in Pompeii is, without doubt, one of the most popular buildings for tourists to visit in the city. It is presented by guides as a dark and narrow space, with small, uncomfortable masonry beds, erotic graffiti scratched into the walls by bored men waiting their turn, and titillating paintings of sex acts, a menu of sorts, providing options over each doorway. (And if you doubt this is still the case, my dad got into an argument with a guide we overheard relaying such nonsense.) One could argue this is for tourists alone, but many scholars have repeated similar claims. The brothel has been described as dark and seedy, the paintings as obscene, the beds as small and indicative of the lowest kind of establishment. Levin-Richardson has shown quite the opposite by evaluating the evidence for what it is, not where it is. Removed from the context of a place selling sex, the masonry couches are bigger than the average found in houses in Pompeii and elsewhere in the Greek and Roman world. They are bigger, indeed, than many dining couches meant to hold three reclining adults. The majority of the graffiti does not contain any sexual or erotic content. The frescoes are heteronormative, male-female pairs engaged in genital to genital (no oral or anal) sex, with the women’s breasts obscured by linens or breast bands. The material finds of razors and basins and cups suggest drinking, possible food consumption, and grooming. This isn’t a den of inequity. It is, in Levin-Richardson’s words a ‘carefully curated sexual universe’ that was more about selling a sexual experience than sex. It was, she concludes, likely a failed business model and probably the reason that this structure, although held as the exemplum of a Roman brothel, is the only one of its kind.

Strong takes a larger view of women and sex – not just focusing on paid sex workers, but on the relationship Romans had with sex and sexuality both in and out of the home. This a wide ranging approach, considering moral and legal standpoints in addition to the material remains. She too is logical, approaching the evidence in a manner that allows her to (I think quite successfully) dismantle some long held scholarly interpretations of the ancient evidence. The seemingly ubiquitousness of sexual activity in wall paintings – whether in a brothel, bath house, or private home – have staunchly been viewed as depicting prostitutes rather than husbands and wives or any other possible pairing in what she refers to as ‘an unfortunate legacy of nineteenth-century prudishness.’ Consider that there are no known images of prostitutes that survive: there was no clear visual distinctions between prostitutes and matrons for Romans, it was a moral one. Therefore, the standard view that any paintings of fully clothed women are wives and any semi-nude or naked are whores, regardless of context or location cannot hold true. Strong also does a comprehensive job of dispelling ideas about sexual behaviours and moral zoning. She details the many ways ancient literature informs us that matrons and prostitutes did interact. Livy’s account of the Bacchanalian affair, for example, includes the prostitute Hispala Faecenia being housed in the house of Sulpicia whilst the cult is investigated. That upper-class Roman women were sheltered or somehow removed from sex outside of the marriage bed is also problematic. Ovid, for example, claims he wrote Ara Amatoria for meretrices (1.31-4), but that cannot be meant literally. (As Strong says: ‘‘He cannot be alleging that his audience consists of impoverished illiterate streetwalkers.’) The elegists wrote of extra-marital affairs with proper Roman matrons, which goes against everything modern scholars assume about this category of women. This is why Strong says that ‘[e]ven if the women themselves are imaginary characters, the invention of an entire fictional category of women for poets to make socially acceptable love with seems implausible.’ That this type of poetry existed suggests that Romans were more fluid in their understanding and tolerance of sexual relationships than we allow them to be.

Her take on the concept of identifying brothels is also… well… logical. What do brothels need? Not the masonry beds, sexual images, and erotic graffiti that Andrew Wallace Hadrill and others have used to identify brothels. Brothels need to be centrally located to attract clientele, preferably with multiple access points, and a reliable source of water. The brothel in Pompeii certainly fits this model – Levin-Richardson even identifies nearby public fountains and imagines the collection of water as a way for the prostitutes to drum up business or take a break – as do a number of other sites Strong identifies. She points out that both Cicero and Frontinus complain about public water being siphoned off by brothels (Cic. Cael. 34; Frontinus de Aqua. 76.1-2), and illustrates through other literary sources that brothels were central, and generally not shame inducing for male clients to use. The former characteristics used for identification are rightly dismissed as unnecessary. A bed isn’t a pre-requisite for sex. Water for washing afterwards is. Logic.

There is, of course, much more that could be said about the content of these books. Ultimately though, they represent so much more than the sum of their research. The manner in which Levin-Richardson and Strong evaluate evidence, removed from the burden of nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations, and see it for the sake of itself, is startling in its approach. It shouldn’t be, but it is. I think that this is why I found reading the books together transformative, because they simultaneously reinforced just how badly the study of women in antiquity has ofttimes been done, and at the same time, present a way forward. I, for one, will happily follow in their footsteps.

Spur on the horses!

News broke over the weekend of an exciting and unique new find in Pompeii, an intact chariot of a type that has no parallels in the known remains of Roman Italy. The vehicle was discovered in conjunction with the ongoing excavations in the villa di Civita Giuliana. Located to the north of the city walls, this villa was partially excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, but has only recently become the subject of more detailed recovery work. This is the result of an ongoing joint project which was conceived as a reaction to illegal tunnels dug through the property by antiquities black marketeers – indeed, it is sheer luck that one of the looter’s tunnels only just misses the latest discovery. There have been numerous finds coming out of these excavations, including the skeletons of three horses complete with harnesses (2018) in a stable block, and more recently, the remains of two male victims of the eruption (2020).

Late last year archaeologists discovered a double porticoed room leading into an open courtyard adjacent to the stable where the remains of the horses were previously found. An oak beamed ceiling, carbonised and preserved by the eruption, was found in the same room as the chariot. The preservation is stunning: mineralised wood (identified as beech), imprints of organic material (created by injecting plaster into cavities), iron wheels, metal arm and back rests, and decorative elements of tin and bronze. This is an incredibly rich object with red and black painted wood panels that alternate along the sides of the structure with engraved bronze sheets, which are further enhanced by tin medallions depicting figures. Organic material reveal traces of cushions, ropes that would have held garlands of flowers, and two sheafs of wheat imprinted in the ash on the seat of the carriage.

Aspects of the decoration, the design of the chariot, and the traces of organic material are currently fueling the scholarly debate as to how these should be interpreted, and the exact purpose of the vehicle. It has been identified as a pilentum, a specific kind of four wheeled carriage used by women. Livy (5.25.7) refers to the use of pilenta by women for festivals and games, whereas the standard two wheeled carpenta was for use on holy and work days. No other remains of a pilentum have been attested in archaeological contexts in Italy, but some comparison may be drawn to other artefacts such as this statuette of the goddess Cybele. The wheatsheafs, along with the use of this type of vehicle for festivals, has led to some speculation that it may have been used by a priestess in processions related to the worship of Ceres or Venus. As the resident patron deity of the city, Venus did have her own public priestesses, and her celebration would have been foremost in the local religious calendar. Ceres is another popular goddess in Pompeii, with numerous priestesses attested epigraphically who were dedicated to her cult. The presence of stalks of wheat in the chariot at the time it was buried in volcanic debris could indicate a link to Ceres, as she was the goddess of fertility and all things agricultural. What a festival for her might look like, and more to the point, where a procession might lead in the city is more difficult to assess. Ceres is one of many of the gods who are present in the written record of Pompeii, but for whom no temple has ever been ascribed.

The erotic images – visible on two of the three large medallions – have created further debate as to interpretation. In comparison to other known images (from Pompeii and elsewhere), there are what appears to be two pairs of lovers: one male-male and one male-female. These have also been refered to as typical of depictions of satyrs and maenads, particularly in reference to other works of art where the maenad is attempting to escape the embrace of a satyr. The smaller medallions on the chariot are described as cupids engaged in various activities, again something seen frequently in Pompeii, especially in dividing registers in wall paintings. It may never be clear which of these two interpretations is correct, but we can hope that restoration work as yet to be carried out may offer some clarity, particularly if the third image can be recreated. Regardless, the inclusion of erotic images in the decorative scheme (what Anise K. Strong referred to as akin to ‘pornographic bumper stickers’) has led to the idea that the chariot was of a type used not in a religious procession, but in a matrimonial one.

The most recognisable and most important event of a Roman wedding ceremony was in all likelihood the procession of the bride from her home to that of the groom, the domum deductio. The procession served as a public demonstration of the wedding, with the bride serving as the key participant, since the groom did not necessarily have to be present. Elements of the wedding took place primarily in the home, first the bride’s, then culminating with her acceptance into the home of the groom, and as such were not wholly subject to public display. The procession, however, was, and for those who were able to afford it, could include the use of a chariot such as this one. The combination of erotic images, ropes for garlands of flowers, the symbolism of fertility inherent in the wheatsheafs, and the richness of the vehicle overall does lend some credence to the idea of the chariot used in a wedding procession.

There will undoubtedly be a slew of new information still to come as work continues on the chariot. Iconography aside, it is an important discovery for better understanding the technology of ancient Roman vehicles and how they worked, and is currently the only known example of a pilentum from Roman Italy. Excavation work in this villa over the last several years has revealed a significant number of new finds, which are not only expanding our knowledge of the volcanic event, but also provide insight into numerous aspects of life in Pompeii and the broader Roman world.

My first thought upon reading the news was, perhaps predictably, not of the uniqueness of the chariot, but of a particular graffito:

CIL IV 5092
Amoris ignes sentires mulio
magi(s) properares ut videres Venerem
diligo puerum venustum rogo punge iamus
bibisti iamus prende lora et excute
Pompeios defer ubi dulcis est amor / meus es.

‘Driver, if only you could feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a young charmer; please, spur on the horses, let’s get on! You’ve had your drink, let’s go, take the reins and crack the whip, take me to Pompeii, where my sweet love lives.’

I’d like to imagine the eager writer of this text arriving at their lover’s door in such a chariot.

Repeating History

In the flurry of final deeds marking the exodus of the current administration from Washington, D.C., (by the time I publish this former) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he stated that multiculturalism is ‘not who America is.’ Besides the obvious fact that the earliest European settlers of the North American continent were not Pompeo’s Italian ancestors (or indeed Trump’s German grandfather, or two of his three foreign-born wives), multiculturalism is exactly what America is, and always has been. The proverbial melting pot, accepting the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ the country of all creeds and colours, is a fundamental concept for the history of the U.S. Ask any school child… it was drilled into us. This, of course, does not mean we have historically been very good at it, and intolerance has always thrived in contrast to the desire to represent that elusive idea of freedom. Irish need not apply, no Blacks, no Italians, speak English, build the wall. This rhetoric is exactly why people like Pompeo make statements as they do. There is an obvious contradiction here in the lack of acceptance of foreign or different from people not all that far removed from immigrant ancestors – Marco Rubio and Priti Patel spring to mind as prime examples. That switch from one generation (more or less) to the next is a stunning example of losing sight not only of history generally, but of your own past and ancestry.

By sheer coincidence, I have been reading Laurens Tacoma’s Roman Political Culture (2020) today. In a discussion of the Apocolocyntosis, a text in which Claudius’ right to deification is debated by the gods, he examines the charge that the emperor Claudius admitted all and sundry to Roman citizenship, with the goal ‘to see everyone in a toga’ (Apoc. 3.3). In other words, one of the arguments used for the basis of the rejection of Claudius’ deification is that he let too many foreigners become citizens. Despite the fact that this is, as far as ancient historians can determine, grossly exaggerated (according to demographic studies and the results of the census taken during his reign approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire held citizenship), the idea that Claudius was pro-multiculturalism held. Cassius Dio (60.17.5-7) even goes so far as to state that citizenship could be purchased from Claudius’ first wife Messalina and his imperial freedmen.

In the record of a speech Claudius gave before the Senate in regard to the extension of citizenship to Gallic aristocrats, known as the Lyons tabulae, he points out what the Senate (and coincidentally, Mike Pompeo) have forgotten: Rome has always been made up of foreigners.

‘Of course, breaking with the past, the deified Augustus, my great uncle, and my uncle Tiberius Caesar wished the whole flower of the colonies and the municipalities everywhere, that is, the men of worth and wealth, to be in this senate house. But what then? Is not an Italian senator to be preferred to a provincial? When I begin to obtain approval for this part of my censorship, what I feel about this matter I will reveal to you. But not even provincials, provided they can be an ornament to the senate house, do I think ought to be rejected.’

(CIL 13.1668 col 2 ll. 1–8)

File:Lyon-TableClaudienne.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Romulus was, after all, the descendent of Aeneas – an illegal immigrant who fled his war torn country looking for a new home. Upon founding the city that bore his name, Romulus sought to increase its population, and did so by inviting foreigners to settle within his newly erected walls. Livy (I.8.5-6) tells us:

‘It had been the ancient policy of the founders of cities to get together a multitude of people of obscure and low origin and then to spread the fiction that they were the children of the soil. In accordance with this policy, Romulus opened a place of refuge on the spot where, as you go down from the Capitol, you find an enclosed space [6] between two groves. A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states. This was the first accession of strength to the nascent greatness [7] of the city.’

The first women of Rome were stolen from a neighbouring state, the city expanded over time, slowly subsuming a multitude of native Italic peoples, then moved across the region to include Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Britains, Egyptians, Syrians, and others. Rome was, for all intents and purposes, the original melting pot. The Senate, and indeed many of the Italians as provincial territories grew, had a habit of forgetting that Romans and peregrini were only a few generations removed in name. Perhaps then, in a true example of repeating history, its no wonder that many Americans do the same.

Bare Bones

cmcfz1ps467-1

When I wrote about the latest finds from Pompeii earlier this week, I focused on the stories told about the revelations of new material extracted from the debris of Vesuvius. There is, however, another huge issue that must be grappled with, both as archaeologists and as people, and that is the fact that we are dealing with human remains. How we do that as Classical Archaeologists is, for historic reasons I cannot fully identify, very different from how such remains are handled in other parts of the world, and in other fields of archaeological science.

Five years ago, at the time my doctoral dissertation on tombs was being published as a book, my dad managed to get me invited to give a talk about my research at the local public library in Illinois when I was home for the holidays. After the talk (surprisingly, even attended by people I’m not related to), I was asked a question regarding what happened to the human remains found in Pompeii after excavation. The audience member who asked made specific reference to NAGPRA, which is something that I was well schooled in from my undergraduate days, but had never considered in the context of my work in Italy.  For those not from North America, this law requires the dignified treatment and eventual return of any human remains found on federal or tribal lands to their descendants. This has sometimes caused drawn out legal battles between tribes, in part because the length of time that has passed (multiple thousands of years) can make finding direct lineage difficult, or in many instances, allows claims from more than one group. This is, of course, very much tied up with the historic mis-treatment of Native Americans, their displacement from ancestral lands, and the genocidal level reduction of their population over the last six hundred years. What is intriguing to me, is that this same reverence is not necessarily shown for the remains that are found in the Vesuvian sites. Unlike some of the issues caused by forced migration and genocide of Native American peoples, there should be no doubt that modern Italians are the descendants of ancient Romans (as are numerous other European and North African peoples). All you need to do is listen to a Neapolitan or a Sicilian speak Italian and you can hear faint remnants of your school Latin. Even amongst Americans whose ancestors came from Italy there is still a vague association with the Rome of the past (consider Tony Soprano’s (sweary) response when asked by a Jewish business associate waxing lyrically about the braveness of those at Masada holding out against Roman soldiers.) So what’s the difference, and more to the point, why is there one?

Since excavations in Pompeii began in 1748, approximately 1200 sets of human remains have been found. Initially, these were categorised as the old, the infirm, and children who were physically unable to escape the cataclysm of the eruption in AD 79. This determination, however, was made with no examination of the bones themselves. Since the late nineteenth century, slightly more than one hundred plaster casts have been made of human and animal remains. It is only recently that the skeletons contained in the casts have begun to be studied by Estelle Lazar. Her team has discovered that the previous ideas about who died in the eruption is wrong, and the remains actually represent a broad spectrum of the population of the ancient city. What makes the two recently made casts unique is that the skeletons themselves were examined prior to casting. Skeletal remains from an archaeological site of any context can provide information about age at death, sex, health, diet, occupation, and migration. Mix in a documented cause of death by volcanic eruption, and there is more information to be found about stages of the eruption, cause of death (suffocation from ash, pyroclastic flow gases, blunt trauma, etc.), and the behaviour and reaction to those attempting to escape (consider, for example, the hundreds found on the beach in Herculaneum).

This is, in part, why the skeletons and casts from Pompeii and Herculaneum are, in my view, treated on some level as artefacts rather than as human remains. This can be taken one step further when you consider that a large number of casts were first made in late 1800s. In a sense, they have become artefacts in their own right in relation to the development of the technique and of the evolution of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Many of these have been on display within the archaeological park, in museums, or simply kept gathering dust in storage in various facilities around Pompeii. The casts of the victims have always been a draw for visitors to the site – I can’t tell you how many times a tourist has asked me for directions to ‘the bodies’ – and indeed have featured on postcards and other memorabilia. I suspect – based in part on the reaction I’ve had from some students over the years – that there is some confusion as to what they actually are (and I would guess this may arise from referring to them as ‘casts’). Yes, the process of making a cast preserves the shape of the whole person, including details such as clothing, anything that the individual may have been holding or carrying, and in the case of animals, harnesses or leads. But the outer plaster shell does contain human remains: skulls, teeth, long bones, fingers, and toes. They are not models of what once existed, they are skeletons. They are people. As Mary Beard has said, ‘Pompeii is not just an archaeological site, it’s a site of human tragedy.’  It surprises me that there isn’t more reverence for them, not just by scientists and tourists, but by the people of Italy themselves. Why isn’t there a call to re-bury those we have dug up? Every once in awhile, a meme circulates asking the question how much time has to pass before grave robbing becomes archaeology. It pokes fun at an incredibly awkward question about how we treat those whose resting places (whether intended or tragic) we disturb. I, for one, would rather be an archaeologist.

 

The Stories We Tell

Over the weekend, there was a small explosion of news stories and photos coming out of Pompeii, where it was announced that the remains of two victims of the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius had been discovered. Found in a villa of Civita Guiliana, an area 700 metres to the north of the city walls, these excavations are part of the ongoing work that has been carried out in the area since 2017, when Italian police discovered illegal tunnels black marketeers had dug into the structure. Upon discovery, the skeletons and the cavities around their bodies were explored with cameras before casts were made, using techinques first developed in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Fiorelli. Video of this process can be found on the Pompeii site’s Instagram.

https://www.instagram.com/pompeii_parco_archeologico/

Whilst fundamentally, this is exciting news for anyone that works on any of the Vesuvian sites, there is a seemingly inevitable downside to every new discovery. There is always a story, an immediate explanation for the who or what that is, if not completely wrong, then at least exagerated or inconclusive based on the evidence that is currently available. In this latest instance, the social status (and therefore relationship) between the two sets of human remains of slave and wealthy master is based solely on a wool cloak and some crushed vertabrae. I am certainly not the only person who finds this conclusion pre-mature, at the very least (for further discussion see Miko Flohr’s excellent thread), but it did make me start thinking about why this happens. Why do we insist on a story, evidence be damned?

This has been true for many of the finds from the last several years, including the tantalising story of the man killed in the eruption by a large stone block, later dismissed as a complete fallacy. But it isn’t only a recent trend: these stories have been circulating since the re-discovery of Pompeii. Consider, for example, the oft told story of the noble soldier maintaining his post at the Herculaneum Gate throughout the eruption of Vesuvius. This story was supposedly born from the discovery of a skeleton with armaments in a small structure with a bench next to the city gate. It was immortalised in a painting ‘Faithful Unto Death’ by Edward John Poynter (1865), who got the idea from Edward Bulwar-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Mark Twain wrote about it in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad (1869). In 2007, Lee Behlman finally dispelled this myth. Not only was the benched structure actually the tomb of a freedman named Marcus Cerrinius Restitutus – not a sentry box – but the daily excavation records showed that no skeleton was found anywhere near it. It’s not true, it is simply a good story.

Faithful Unto Death

This desire for a story, a way perhaps to make a human connection, brings to mind the impressions of another novelist – Mary Shelley. She published the accounts of her travels in two volumes in 1844 as Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. She first visited Pompeii in 1818, finding the site largely unimpressive and depressing. But in 1843, when she returned to the city after reading Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, she wrote:

‘We have visited Pompeii. A greater extent of the city has been dug out and laid open since I was there before, so that it has now much more the appearance of a town of the dead. You may ramble about and lose yourself in the many streets. Bulwer, too, has peopled its silence. I have been reading his book, and I have felt on visiting the place much more as if really it had been once full of stirring life, now that he has attributed names and possessors to its houses, passengers to its streets. Such is the power of the imagination. It can not only give ‘a local habitation and a name’ to the airy creations of the fancy and the abstract ideas of the mind, but it can put a soul into stones, and hang the vivid interest of our passions and our hopes upon objects otherwise vacant of name or sympathy.  Not indeed that Pompeii could be such, but the account of its ‘Last Days’ has cast over it a more familiar garb, and peopled its desert streets with associations that greatly add to their interest.’

In other words, Shelley’s experience of visiting Pompeii was transformed by a story. Her idea that the story created by Bulwer-Lytton ‘peopled its silence’ is an important concept: she is evidence that we connect more with people who have some sort of form, an ordered place in the world, that can be identified in some manner, than we do with an ambiguous set of remains (whether architectual or human). For her, it was imagining the characters of Glaucus and Ione passing time in the House of the Tragic Poet. For us, it is concocting status and relationships for newly discovered skeletons, determining a fantastical cause of death, or imagining the final circumstances of both the animal and human remains uncovered. The desire to create a narrative around new finds without substantiated evidence, I suspect, is far more about a condition of the human psyche that desires a means for establishing a connection or understanding than it is about the truth. Regardless of the harm it may cause (try dispelling students of the ideas they gain from news reports and documentaries on telly), it seems that the truth is for the scholars and scientists to work out later to no great fanfare, and should never get in the way of telling a good story.