Pompeii Awakened

by Judith Harris

New York: Palgrave Macmillan; London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, 320 pp.
$35.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by John Merrill

What, you might reasonably ask, does a book about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. have to do with Biblical archaeology? Well, stay tuned, the answer may surprise you. Author Judith Harris is a frequent commentator on Italian culture and a former contributing editor to the BAS publication Archaeology Odyssey. In a famous, cataclysmic eruption, Vesuvius spewed some 10 billion tons of volcanic material to a height of nearly 10 miles. The resulting cloud of super-heated detritus then settled back to earth, covering a swath of the coast of the Bay of Naples to a depth averaging more than 40 feet.

Had Mt. Vesuvius been located, say, in the South Pacific, this huge volcanic event would have produced only a footnote in the earth’s geologic history. But, the coast of Naples was to Imperial Rome what the Hamptons are to New York City. That is, in this lovely waterfront setting were located the summer villas of some of Rome’s most important persons. And here is where the Biblical connection comes in. The admiral of the Naples-based Roman fleet was none other than Pliny the Elder, the prolific geographer/philosopher whose description of the Essene community near the Dead Sea has permitted modern scholars to identify the Dead Sea Scrolls as an Essene library. Another villa in the area belonged to Flavius Vespasian, the general who led the suppression of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome and subsequently become emperor. Almost certainly the Jewish historian and adoptive Flavian, Josephus, whose writings include among many important historical commentaries, the only contemporary non-Biblical reference to Jesus Christ, spent time at the Flavian villa here (although fortunately he was not one of the casualties of the eruption). Another prominent resident was Seneca, the philosopher/scholar and close advisor to the emperor Nero who, according to some sources, corresponded with the apostle Paul.

One could go on, but the astute reader by now will grasp the point: It is impossible to fully understand either the Bible or the archaeology of the Roman era, without coming to grips with the cultural milieu of Rome itself. And a vivid record of that milieu was buried, and thus preserved, to be revealed with astonishing spectacle almost two millennia later.

Harris tells the story of the discovery of the long-buried coastal settlements—including not only Pompeii, and Herculaneum, but other towns and individual villas—with an impressive command of detail. Her account begins in 1709 C.E., when a farmer’s well revealed precious marble fragments that were subsequently identified as remnants of a Greek-style amphitheatre. Further digging yielded astonishing intact statuary, and in short order the treasure hunt was on.

Harris traces the subsequent history of excavation and discovery through the next three centuries, to the present time. Her account includes a nearly overwhelming procession of notable personalities, aristocratic dilettantes, scholars, poets, philosophers, scoundrels and heroes, not to mention such prominent figures as Napoleon, Mussolini and J. Paul Getty. Along the way, Harris treats her readers to insightful observations about the political, cultural and economic background of the times, occasionally reminiscent of author Barbara Tuchman in her grasp of historical context.

If there is a complaint about Pompeii Awakened, it would have to be that the book reveals more about the discoverers than the discovered. The story reveals an almost complete disregard for provenance and the proper documentation of finds that will be shocking to contemporary fans of archaeology. For centuries, the buried treasurers of Pompeii and vicinity were subject to, at best, officially-sanctioned looting, and at worst, downright vandalism. While much of the wonder remains, much was lost. In the end, the reader will ponder whether, as in the case of many other sites, the fabulous artifacts of Pompeii would have been better left in the ground, at least until they could be dealt with in a responsible and systematic manner.

John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.

Pompeii is the source of the earliest known painting depicting a Biblical scene. It depicts the judgement of King Solomon, and the Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle are depicted among the witnesses. Read Theodore Feder’s “Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle” for more on this Pompeian artwork.

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