Today is the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 CE. It’s also my eldest nephew’s birthday, so doubly an important date for me. On this day, one of the most evocative places on earth was frozen in time for us to explore two millennia later — plus I first got to stick out my tongue at a newborn and see him mimic me (as I’d hoped). He has been a quick study ab ovo. 🙂
Vesuvius’s most famous eruption was a horrendous tragedy when it happened, but the trove of information it left us about daily life in a Roman town is invaluable — so much more fascinating than written history, which is mostly just about war. For example, the fresco here from a household shrine in ancient Pompeii apparently shows the volcano as it looked before the top blew. This is the only known depiction during the 500 dormant years that lulled the residents of the region into a false sense of safety. Some of those living on the slopes must have seen evidence of charring, steam vents and bubbling mud, but the last eruption had long passed from living memory.
The guy dressed in grapes next to the volcano is Bacchus (aka Dionysus), god of wine, present because the volcanic soil was (and is) excellent for vineyards.
If you’re curious about life in first-century Italy, please check out a fictional exploration in my time-travel romance, Templum. My contemporary mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig also taps into the unparalleled mystique of this setting.
Two obsessions have fueled most of my stories: the English Regency and Roman archaeology. They seem to be unrelated subjects, so it surprised me to stumble on the image shown here. This caricature by James Gillray, dated to 1801 (technically, a little before the Regency), shows Sir William Hamilton studying his collection of antiquities. The wall behind him features paintings of Cleopatra, Mark Antony, the emperor Claudius and an erupting Vesuvius.
I’m not sure what the vampire-like statue in the background represents, but the Wikimedia description page for the image explains that the joke behind it is that the paintings of Cleopatra and Mark Antony are actually portraits of Hamilton’s wife Emma and her lover Vice Admiral Nelson (renowned for fighting against Napoleon and dying at the Battle of Trafalgar). I imagine the volcano symbolizes something else, too. 🙂
It turns out that William and Emma Hamilton have bios as fascinating as Nelson’s. His Wiki describes him as a “Scottish diplomat, antiquarian, archaeologist and volcanologist.” Hers tells of her evolution from maid to actress/model (a favorite of painter George Romney) to titled lady. William reportedly encouraged her relationship with the war hero Nelson, and the three of them lived together in London.
The truth is stranger than fiction, so it’s hard to follow up a tale like that, but one of my books also touches on both of my obsessions: Lord St Leger’s Find is about an aspiring female archaeologist during the English Regency whose family thinks it’s more important for her to find a husband than to find antiquities. For a complete description and sample chapters, please check out the book page here.