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Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  2,973 ratings  ·  344 reviews
Pompeii explodes a number of myths - from the very date of the eruption, probably a few months later than usually thought; the hygiene of the baths which must have been hotbeds of germs; and the legendary number of brothels, most likely only one, to the massive death count which was probably less than ten per cent of the population. Street Life, Earning a Living: Baker, Ba ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 2009 by Profile Books (first published 2008)
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I began to read this book before what was my second visit to Pompeii. Sadly, I did not begin it early enough, so I had only reached about half of the book by the time I got there. When I came back, I started it from the beginning again.

This is not a book to read while being there, for it is thematic. It does not go street by street, house by house, nor treat the temples or theatres or amphitheatre individually. For that one needs a guidebook, plenty of time and most probably a good ‘parasol’. B
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I read a lot of this. I carried it everywhere. I really like Mary Beard. But I could not finish it. I'm not sure if it was the repetition of details in a different way time and again or what, because I really did enjoy it and one day I will finish it. Pompeii and ancient Greek and Roman culture interest me a lot.

I expect we all have books like that, ones we like but can't finish.
A rich and thoughtfully structured text. Full of enjoyment and discoveries.

But then a prized possession of mine when young was a mug for drinking tea - for drinking wine at a young age was not cultural acceptable sadly during my childhood - it was decorated in blue and black with lava swamping the neat columns of Pompeii, a legend read: Pompeii 79AD. Eventually the glaze was so cracked that the vessel had to be demoted to desk tidy. But this must have been after many thousands of mugs of tea. So
Jan 18, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ancient-history
Pompeii is the most famous dead city in the world. In 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the Roman city beneath untold tons of volcanic ash. Death is a part of life. But in the case of Pompeii, her death is her legacy. Pompeii exists today because she was buried. It is her tomb-ness that gives her immortality. When we think of Pompeii, we think of the plaster molds taken of the people who died in the eruption; molds that capture their postures in the last instant of life. Pompeii is a maus ...more
When people were running away from destruction in 79 AD, after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, they had no idea that 2000 years later they would be famous and the subject of fascination and speculation to many. If you are one of these many, then you need to read this book. Right away!

This book is not about Mount Vesuvius, nor is it about the destruction of Pompeii. Instead, it takes a more positive approach and uses the catastrophe to delve deeper into the life of ancient Pompeii. Because the ci
Jan 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, overdrive
This book describes life in Pompeii before it was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The portrait of daily life is constructed from archeological research and historical writings. The author makes clear that neither the research (particularly the early research) nor the writing can be relied upon completely, so there is a lot of room for interpretation. The author interprets in a very entertaining manner. This book was informative, but not at all dry, as it covered such topics ...more
I personally am more attracted by the ancient Greek culture than the Roman. This influences my rating.

I whole-hardheartedly recommend choosing this book if you are curious about ancient Roman life. The book is not about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. which destroyed the town. It is instead about life in the town before the event. It is about life in a "typical Roman town". It is based on an immense amount of archaeological research carried out over the last two centuries. The book distingu
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Mary Beard manages to bring the Romans, and especially Pompei as a real and vibrant town, closer to me as a reader through this book. By using themed chapters, focusing on a variety of topics, covering religion, economics, politics, food and drinks, leisure and the history of the town. Beard manages to “dig up” anecdotes and evidence to make these abstract topics interesting.

Some perspectives on Roman society in general and Pompei specifically were new for me, making the book a refreshing and en
Roy Lotz
I read this book too late for my visit to Pompeii—about two years too late, sadly. But I am still glad I did. Mary Beard, in her customary way, has written an intelligent and accessible book about this iconic Roman site, which is enlightening regardless of whether or not its reading coincides with your visit.

Beard can be described as an anti-Romantic. Instead of waxing poetic about the suffering of the victims, the scale of the cataclysm, or the priceless value of the archaeological site, she s
Jul 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
I've been meaning to get hold of and read this since my visit to Pompeii last September. I was worried it might be quite dry and spoil the fun, since it's billed as being very sceptical and as cutting things down to the facts, but I needn't have worried. It's an easy enough read despite all the detail, and Mary Beard's speculations are as interesting as anything she refutes.

I actually recommend you read it before visiting Pompeii, because you'll have a much clearer understanding of what you're s

I listened to this on audiobook, and the first thing worth mentioning is that Phyllida Nash was an excellent narrator; clearly spoken, and with a pleasing tone that rather than grating or being soporific really got me engrossed in the book.

Surprisingly, I don’t have much to say about this book. Let me stress, the reason for that is that it’s so spot on. Mary Beard comes across here the same way she does in her programmes and lectures – well-spoken (well-written in this case!), lucid, intelligent
Feb 23, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A wonderful introduction to Pompeii. It gives an insight into life in a modest Roman town. Much of this was utterly alien, like the way in which the gods intruded into everyday life.

Mary Beard has a great knack of presenting history in a lively and infornative manner without dumbing down. I also liked the way in which often she gave alternative interpretations to findings rather than pontificating about what must gave been - sometimes we simply do not know for sure
Lauren James
Jun 27, 2018 added it
Shelves: audiobook
A very fascinating look at what we know about Romans from the Pompeii remains, and how we know those things for sure. I want to be an archaeologist now, please.
Nov 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Terrific book with a short review... author questions several assumptions made about archeological findings - was this "typical" or specific to a situation? Moreover, she emphasizes that Pompeii was a place in its own right, not some sort of proxy mini-Rome. Excellent audio narration adds to the experience.
Dan Graser
Apr 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mary Beard, the finest classicist alive, absolutely never disappoints in her wonderful works of history and this snapshot of Pompeii is no different. Rather than just fill the work with pictures of the site and descend into mere travel-brochure level intrigue, she brings the full weight of her erudition and academic credentials to bear in a serious work of history. Along the way she fills the work with so many levels of history from the remains of huge temples to the ridiculous graffiti left beh ...more
Dec 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Mary Beard doesn't conform to the stereotype of the dessicated ivory tower classicist, and as a result this is an interesting, readable, and, dare I say it, entertaining book. Written in an earthy, direct style, salted with dashes of wit and irony, it delivers an excellent summary of the results of centuries of intensive study of the ruined city of Pompeii.

And it is astounding how much has been learned -- one gets a good feel for the hundreds of years of painstaking meticulous work, starting wi
Jan 28, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
As someone interested in archaeology, history and ancient civilisations, this book was particularly enlightening. It provided interesting details into the typical life of a Roman town at the time Pompeii was destroyed by the Vesuvian eruption. It does so by expounding on academic research about the city done in the last 200 years, trying to support some conjectures and theories with existing evidence and showing how these same facts can be misconstrued.
Several themes of this "typical life" are c
Humberto Ballesteros
Beard's authoritative book on Pompeii pleased me even more than her SPQR, which I also enjoyed. Her clear and measured voice, punctuated by moments of wry humor, provides the perfect counterpoint for her obsessive attention to detail and her massive bibliography; and her penchant for criticizing her colleagues' more fanciful theories lends itself beautifully to the topic, given the tendency to romanticize Roman life that has affected many authors in the past. One truly gets the feeling that the ...more
The best nonfiction book on Pompeii for educated laymen I have ever read. Complete and simple to understand, with many illustrations.
Czarny Pies
Apr 20, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Visitors to Pompeii
Recommended to Czarny by: It won the 2008 Wolfson Prize
Shelves: european-history
I am giving this very charming tourist guide a mere three stars in order to express my outrage at it having been awarded the 2008 Wolfson History Prize. "The Fires of Vesuvius" is not in any way a work of historical scholarship which the author recognizes well enough. She provides an itinerary for a visit to the site, tips on how to travel there and suggestions where to stop for snacks.
"The Fires of Vesuvius" would indeed very valuable for the cultured visitor to Pompei. It provides a resume of
Jan 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of those books, like Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's book on the Cathars, that makes history come alive for people who like to know "how do you know that? WHy do you think that's so?". I recommend it highly for the general reader with an interest in history and an inquiring, even sceptical, mind. The author discusses life in Pompeii,sticking close to the archeological and historical record. In doing so, she gently pokes fun at some of the more outrageous flights of fantasy that other autho ...more
Jacob Cutts
Oct 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A stupendous book, I started recommending it to friends and family before I finished reading.

I've read a lot of history books, but this one impressed me for simultaneously covering one of the oldest time periods I've read about, while also humanizing history better than any other history book I can think of. Beard goes into detail on subjects I never knew I was interested in, but was enthralled by: everything from how fresco painting was done, to how a bakery was operated, to traffic patterns.

Mar 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I managed to do my undergraduate in classics without learning too much about material culture so much of the information presented in this book is new to me. I haven't been to Pompeii but I think this would an excellent guide; Mary Beard covers as wealth of topics in a very readable, and very even-handed kind of way - always assessing and reassessing current and past presumptions about life at Pompeii. ...more
Jul 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed, non-fiction
Armchair traveling for history buffs; elegant and entertaining.
Emilia Barnes
Whether you will enjoy this is very much dependent on how much you like history, how fascinated you are by Pompeii, and how much you want to know about Roman daily life. It is a history of the small things: the things we can learn from Pompeii as a source of historical information, about how people in those times lived, what and how they ate, where they drank, how they worshipped, how they treated each other etc. It goes into minute details: how the paint used to decorate walls in the houses was ...more
Apr 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: rome, pompeii
Cambridge classicist Mary Beard may be a familiar name and face to those who've enjoyed various documentaries about ancient Rome. She has a rare knack for being able to make complicated historical matters readily accessible to the layman.

Her authorial voice is just as one might expect, for she does the same thing here in examining the daily life of Pompeiians before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Beard takes us through food, bathing, religion, politics, prostitution, and more, with eac
Neil Pearson
Be careful what you wish for - i went into this hoping to know more about Pompeii and came out out of it hoping I knew a little less. I think deep down I'm probably more of a big history person and ultimately not that interested in traffic management and interior design. The other rub is that it's quite clear that Pompeii wasn't that important a roman city/town besides it being frozen in volcanic ash. In that sense the book is good at shattering false preconceptions. Where the book stands out fo ...more
David Eppenstein
Initially let me say that the title is deceptive. This book has nothing to do with the actual eruption of Vesuvius in August of 79 CE. The book in actuality is an examination of the culture, art, and architecture of the City of Pompeii. If these topic areas are of little or no interest to you then this book is definitely not for you. If, like me, you find the details of ancient cultures intriguing then welcome to the world of Mary Beard. These topics interest me as a way of examining how far we ...more
Pete daPixie
May 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-roman
Mary Beard is a chair of Classics at Cambridge University, she also appears quite regularly on UK radio and tv broadcasts and is Classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement. She has been described as standing in the great tradition of myth puncturing Latin classicists.
'Pompeii The Life of a Roman Town' published 2008 certainly keeps her reputation as myth buster.
Mary, Mary quite contrary, certainly picks the bones out of the popularly held views of historians and archaeologists. She even go
Margaret Sankey
Mar 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mary Beard is one of my favorite classicists (and how historian-dork is that to even have favorite classicists?), and Pompeii a great travel memory (except that the volcanic glass dust gave me pneumonia, although that led to European strength Nyquil, of which the Romans surely approved), so I welcome her analysis of what that preserved day of catastrophe in 79 AD can tell us about the Roman Empire, contextualized by contemporary documents and other ruins, as well as informed by the latest in sci ...more
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Winifred Mary Beard (born 1 January 1955) is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Newnham College. She is the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog "A Don's Life", which appears on The Times as a regular column. Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as "Brita ...more

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