Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano

September 25, 2015 | Maureen

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Please join us at North York Central Library on Thursday October 15 at 7:00 pm to explore a topic that has fascinated generations – the destruction of the city of Pompeii by volcanic eruption in 79 AD. Paul Denis, Assistant Curator (Greek, Etruscan, Roman & Byzantine) at the Royal Ontario Museum, will take us back almost 2000 years, to look at the life – and death of Pompeii. For a complete list of Toronto Public Library branches that will have programs about Pompeii, go to the bottom of this post.

Mosaic of watchdogMosaic of watchdog - Creative commons

A vacation destination for many Romans, Pompeii was a busy city near the Bay of Naples, surrounded by fertile land that supported vineyards and farms. It boasted a port, a gymnasium, an amphitheatre, public baths, fountains fed by an aqueduct system, shops, bars and private homes. It was a city rich in beauty -- excavations have revealed wall paintings, highly decorated ceilings, lovely floor mosaics, and sculpture.

The only eye witness account of the destruction of Pompeii is by Pliny the Younger, who was 18 at the time. In a letter, Pliny describes the beginning of the tragedy. Just after midday on August 24, his mother pointed out “a cloud of unusual size and appearance.” It was shaped like a pine tree, rising high in the sky on a “long trunk” which “spread out into what looked like branches.” Despite this ominous sight, Pliny and his mother stayed at their home, which was about 30 kilometres west of Mount Vesuvius. He slept little that night, describing “earth tremors” so strong that everything around him seemed to be “turning upside down.”

By dawn, with the buildings all around them shaking, they decided to flee, joining a “stupefied mob.” Pliny’s mother begged him to leave her behind, to save himself, but he refused. Pliny’s descriptions are terrifying. He saw the sea "being sucked back" leaving many sea creatures stranded on the sand, and a "black and menacing cloud, split by twisted and quivering lashes of fiery breath." As they fled, Pliny looked back: "Dense blackness loomed over us, pursuing us as it spread over the earth like a flood.” Over and over they had to shake off the heavy ash that fell on them, or else be “buried and even crushed beneath its weight.” Pliny thought it was the end of the world.

Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii
Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii Photo by Lancevortex - Creative Commons

Dramatic plaster casts of victims of the disaster may be the reason the destruction of Pompeii has indelibly burned itself into our imaginations. In 1863, the director of excavations at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, decided to capture impressions of people in their final moments using the same technique that had been used to create impressions of objects, such as furniture. One of his contemporaries, the politician Luigi Settembrini, said that Fiorelli had “uncovered human suffering and whoever has an ounce of humanity will feel it.”

But the story of Pompeii isn't only about how its people died. Excavations at the site also tell a story about how they lived. The layers of ash that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it, allowing future generations to get a glimpse into day to day life in a first century Roman city.



If you are planning to attend the exhibit on Pompeii at the Royal Ontario Museum and would like to read about the topic to enrich your experience, consider reserving one of these books:

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts.

The fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii lost and found by Mary Beard.

From Pompeii: the afterlife of a Roman town by Ingrid D. Rowland.

The complete Pompeii by Joanne Berry.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum The fires of Vesuvius - Pompeii lost and found From Pompeii - the afterlife of a Roman town The complete Pompeii

 Here are two DVDs and a historical novel about the destruction of Pompeii:

Pompeii The last day Pompeii back from the dead Pompeii Robert Harris









Excerpts from reviews for the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris: Readers who like their historical fiction well grounded in fact won't be able to put this down (Library Journal Review). Harris vividly brings to life the ancient world on the brink of unspeakable disaster. (Book List Review) ...expertly rendered historic spectacle (Publishers Weekly).

Toronto Public Library branches with programs about Pompeii:     

Pompeii: in the Shadow of the Volcano, at North York Central Library on Thursday October 15, 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm. Speaker: Paul Denis, Assistant Curator, Royal Ontario Museum, World Cultures (Greek, Etruscan, Roman & Byzantine)

Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano at Toronto Reference Library on Monday October 5, 1:00 pm - 3:00pm. Presenters: Outreach team of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Volunteer Committee.

Programs suitable for kids ages 5-12:

Cedarbrae, Saturday October 24, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Woodview Park, Saturday November 7, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Amesbury Park, Saturday November 21, 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

You can get a family pass for the Royal Ontario Museum at 50 Toronto Public Library branches. The Sun Life Financial Museum + Arts Pass (MAP) lets you and your family (two adults & up to five children) explore the best of Toronto's arts and cultural treasures for free.