Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence - review by Jeremy Paterson

Jeremy Paterson

Peopling the Piazzas of Pompeii

Pompeii: The Living City


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 341pp £20 order from our bookshop

On a scorching summer’s day, in the very centre of Pompeii, I was accosted by a hot and bothered American who asked despairingly, ‘Is there anything radically different at that end from this end?’ The same disenchantment is reflected in a graffito in Pompeii’s café toilet, recorded by the authors of this excellent new book: ‘If I’d wanted ruins I could have gone to Kabul.’ The paintings have faded; the plaster crumbles from walls; walls themselves occasionally collapse. It takes a real act of the imagination to recreate the life that once filled the city’s streets. Ray Laurence is well qualified to make the attempt. I remember the moment when, while researching his PhD with me, he announced he was spending his time counting all the external doors in Pompeii. From what at first sight seemed a rather dubious and rebarbative task he conjured up a seductive reconstruction of the patterns of people’s movement around Pompeii, which later formed part of his Roman Pompeii: Space and Society (1994). Now he has teamed up with Alex Butterworth, a writer and dramatist, to bring the city to life in a more readily accessible and attractive fashion.

What the authors have done is to attempt to tell the story of the last twenty-five years of Pompeii’s existence in something of the style of a novel (move over, Robert Harris). The lives of individual Pompeians are reconstructed from inscriptions, graffiti, memorials, houses and decoration, and the clutter of

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