Mary Beard’s Fires of Vesuvius

I’d been looking forward to reading Mary Beard’s Fires of Vesuvius for a while and it hasn’t disappointed. However, just as when you see previews of a movie, you’ve seen the funniest elements before you pay for your ticket, I’m a little saddened to find myself knowing the content of entire paragraphs in advance.
Fortunately, the book previews are mostly from the chapter on sexuality, and, to be fair, my knowing the content may be based on my own research including time spent at the British Museum.

When I read about ancient history, I mentally catalogue details and tie them in with others I know, evaluate them and compare them, but, alas, I don’t create a story.

Mary Beard starts out telling a story based strictly on the details of historians and archaeologists and then, after the unfortunates have fallen victim to Vesuvius, she continues to clothe and animate the remains and artifacts in loving detail. I find that extremely impressive. On the topic of fiction about Pompeii, she refers to Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, which I don’t remember, and Robert Harris’ Pompeii, which I do, and fondly. Harris’ novel, she says, is accurate more or less.

I’m not rushing through it, though, and am only on the sexuality chapter.

So far, the worst problem of this Harvard University Press book, quite suitable for the general public, is that there isn’t a bibliography. Although Mary Beard lists relevant references for each chapter, there isn’t an alphabetical list of authors and titles. I don’t get this. It’s a serious omission. I think it’s related to this lack of a bibliography that I can’t understand the references to the 21st illustration.


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