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Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Roman, Pompeii. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum
Everybody’s heard of the Romans – famously the no. 1 whizzkids and all-round high achievers of European history. But in these gloomy northern latitudes we can’t properly appreciate their manufacturing genius, because we never get to see much of the astonishing stuff they made. The height of excitement for us is the occasional jar of coins dug up by a metal detectorist in a bobble hat.
All the more reason to welcome the 250 artefacts – some of them opulent, some humble – the British Museum has chosen from the untold thousands miraculously preserved in the ground around the Bay of Naples.
The museum has released a few photos to titillate us. There’s a gold snake bracelet that wriggles round a wrist in spookily lifelike fashion to sink its fangs in the wearer’s arm. There’s also one of Pompeii’s best-known treasures, the fresco of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Clutching tools of literacy to advertise their social status, they gaze straight out at us with big eyes, like people we might know.
Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii. AD 50 to 79. Copyright Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum
The most unusual exhibits are perishable and domestic. There’s a loaf of bread popped into the oven in 79 AD moments before the town was overwhelmed, then left untouched beneath the ash for 1,850 years. There are the charred remains of figs, and a baby’s crib that still rocks on its runners.
And there’s something captivating about those blurry plaster figures unearthed from the ash. It’s not just the ghoulish fascination of the lonely tormented ends we can recognise in their twisting forms. It’s also the creepy knowledge that we’re looking at an impression of a hole that was a person. One moment they’re strolling down the high street, wondering whether to have the glazed dormouse or the stuffed lamprey for lunch; the next moment they’re a void under 65 feet of rock-hard death. These are holes with a recognisable form we can empathise with instantly.
It wasn’t all lying around in togas eating grapes.
Like all fanatical world conquerors the Romans had their nasty side. It wasn’t all lying around in togas eating grapes. You would not want to be a shaggy yokel on the sharp end of a Roman legion. Rape, mutilation, branding and burning alive, eye-gouging and breaking of limbs were humdrum regular features of the classical lifestyle. But as we peer from a safe distance over the top of our catalogues, the violence of that time and place just adds a fascinating twist to the Romans’ astonishing skill in making beautiful objects.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum promises to blow our tiny minds with glimpses of a long-buried alien form of life. Rush out and book, before the plebs grab all the tickets.