The University of Wisconsin Department of Classics hosted a distinguished professor of classics for a lecture about the ancient Roman city of Pompeii at the Chazen Museum of Art Thursday night as part of the Year in Humanities.
Mary Beard, a professor of classics from Cambridge University in England, told an audience of mostly non-students about the recent research in Pompeii — the ancient Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — and the important insights it provides into daily ancient Roman life.
“Part of the fun of Pompeii is joining in the puzzling about it,” Beard said. “It’s not just being told what things were for, but trying to work out what things were for, what they looked like and what they were called.”
Beard also said she takes particular interest in the casual, everyday wall paintings and other forms of art the eruption preserved, such as a painting of a group of men playing dice over drinks. Beard said the paintings help dispel some misconceptions about ancient Roman culture, adding most common Romans wore multicolored tunics instead of the stereotypical tunics commonly seen in modern depictions of Roman life.
She added the presence of cubicles in one building led archaeologists to conclude it was a brothel, while other scientists have analyzed the remnants of lavatories and cesspits preserved after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius to learn more about daily Roman eating habits.
The presence of graffiti on Pompeii’s main thoroughfare has also helped historians learn more about political and literary life in ancient Rome, Beard said. The graffiti, some of which appears to be professionally created signage, attacks campaign rivals for local offices and parodies major works of ancient literature, such as Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
“The town still appears to be covered in writing,” Beard said. “These are not just the average graffiti; they were made by trained graffiti artists.”
Beard also explained the current archaeological debate over the exact date of Mt. Vesuvius’ eruption. She said though the undisputed year of the eruption remains 79 A.D., the season of the eruption is still debatable because of conflicting evidence provided by archaeologists.
While Beard said she believes the evidence known today supports an August eruption, the presence of “autumnal” clothing and a coin that suggests a September or October eruption date still make the date a point of contention among historians.
UW junior Nick Coombs said the lecture appealed to his art history major and his interest in urban planning.
He said despite the fact he was unfamiliar with Beard before attending the lecture, he was satisfied with the insights she provided into the study of the city.
“I thought it was really interesting how most of what we know about Pompeii is still steeped in fables and innuendo,” Coombs said. “What we definitively know is very small compared to what people insist they know through very questionable sources.”