Pompeii’s Living Statues
Ancient Roman Lives
Stolen from Death
by Eugene Dwyer
Michigan, 200 pp., $45
Father Vesuvius, devising to punish the wicked cities of the Romans that lay beneath his flanks, erupted not in a vulgar Old Testament cataclysm but instead—as befitted a good Classical volcano—distributed his destruction with prim discrimination. He put forth first a lofty vertical column of ash which, as it spread out at the top, looked to all the world like an elegant umbrella pine. The folk of the Bay of Naples (such of them as had any sense on that fatal day in 79 A.D.) accepted this timely warning, and took to flight, a healthy impulse encouraged by the soot that began to drift like a heavy snow upon those downwind of the mountain.
Soon the ash falling upon towns like Pompeii became mixed with light stones—pumice—and those running away shielded themselves by holding slates aloft or by tying pillows to their heads. By this time the cities south of Vesuvius had been largely abandoned, but many thousands, untrusting of their pillows or reluctant to leave their treasures, abided still in sturdy buildings and in cellars, thinking it safer to wait out the passing of the peril. Others, too, remained because they had no choice: prisoners lying in dungeons and dogs on their leashes.
After about 20 hours, the fall of ash and stones diminished, but only after Vesuvius had already piled more than nine feet of grey weight upon the streets and roofs of Pompeii. Roofs were crushed, and with them those sheltering beneath. Survivors emerging from sound basements found their house doors blocked, and that they must escape from the second stories of their dwellings, if their houses still boasted such. Many were entombed for eternity. There now began a second exodus from Pompeii, as those who had outlasted the fall of ash and stone made their way out over the ruinous moonscape of their town, gawking in at the second-floor windows of their neighbors which were now at eye-level.
Dawdlers were felled by Vesuvius’s subsequent expellations, for rivers of molten mud and cinders were by this time surging down the mountain’s sides. First the city of Herculaneum, which had been spared the ash and stone fall by the northerly wind, was buried 75 feet deep in this infernal flow. Then two burning rivers rolled over Pompeii. Anyone in the path of the fiery stream was incinerated; those still crouching in houses were roasted or choked by mephitic vapors; and those caught near the sea were parboiled.
It was particularly those unfortunates felled by the exudations and the heat of the pyroclastic flow whom the 18th- and 19th-century excavators of Pompeii kept encountering, and in an unsettling way, when a pick hard swung revealed a gulf in the packed matrix of the lost city. The flesh of the dead had perished, leaving a few bones rattling around in a cavity. But often—men had noticed with a shudder—before yielding to corruption, the body left a detailed imprint in the volcanic matter that had hardened around it.
On the third of February 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli, the director of the Pompeii excavations, acted upon this grisly fact. Having identified a promising hollow, the archaeologist cut a small aperture, and fished out the bones of the deceased with slender tongs. Then through the hole he poured gesso—a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue. When the substance hardened, the work of excavation continued, and soon enough there lay before the savant a cast of one of the victims of Vesuvius. This was to be the first of many: Pompeii has now yielded up more than a thousand such casts of humans, in addition to sundry animals—including a famous watchdog writhing on his chain—trees, and other wooden objects.
Fiorelli’s discovery, the first handful of casts, and the resulting sensation in 19th-century Europe are the successive subjects of Eugene Dwyer’s Pompeii’s Living Statues. The casts, he notes soberly, helped to drive the shift of archaeology from treasure-hunting to the painstaking and scholarly practice of today. For those who made the early casts, they also solved puzzles that museum collections and ancient writings could not. Most ancient male statues are nude, so did Roman men commonly walk around in the buff? No. When clothed, did Roman men always wear garments ending in skirts, with their legs bare below? No. Fiorelli’s very first cast was of a man wearing trousers. Did Romans wear underwear? Try figuring that one out from a gallery of marble statues! Yes, it turns out that they did.