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Pompeii

pompeii_03I saw Pompeii in October 2008. Here is my account of it:

Pompeii is a town near Naples, Italy that was buried under six metres of ash when Mount Vesuvius blew its top on a summer day in the year 79. It was not uncovered till the 1800s, making it the best preserved town from Roman times.

It is a whole town: street after street, house after house. Even the pictures in the whorehouse are still there. Much of the town was destroyed, but much of it was covered so quickly in ash that it was preserved – even the shape and position of dying men and dying dogs. It is the closest thing we have to a time machine back to Roman times.

The way you can walk the streets of a lost world is like – Disney World! That is the only other place that is built to be another place and yet is not that other place. It is a strange feeling.

Something that Pompeii makes clear is the power of small, simple changes:

  • The streets are made of large stones – making them uneven, so you always have to always watch your step so you do not twist your foot or fall over. It makes walking down the street slow and harder than you know it has to be.
  • The writing had no spaces, making it hard to read.

Not only are the Romans gone from Pompeii, so is the smell. People threw their waste out into the street and it had to be regularly washed away down the street. That is why there are sidewalks and crossing stones.

Pompeii-couplePompeii did have running water: you can still see the lead pipes running along the streets. The rich had both hot and cold water – nearly 2000 years ago.

One building that is strangely familiar is the basilica, the courthouse, the largest building in town. Only bits of it are left but it had the same layout as St Patick’s cathedral in New York: a huge, long room with a line of inner columns to the right and to the left and a raised part at the far end – where the judge sat, and, in St Paritick’s, where the priest and the altar stand. It is as if  the Church took over the courthouses after the fall of Rome.

The pictures in the whorehouse are still there. They show different positions: you pick the one you want.

Pompeii was not built very high: most of the houses are one or two floors, all of them pretty small. And yet from the way Pompeii is built you can tell people were shorter then,  by like about a foot (0.3 m). Even the beds are shorter.

The rich had a courtyard inside their houses and pictures on their walls.

The bricks were not laid and cut so that the outer walls are smooth and even,  but some were made smooth by covering them with plaster.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Ovid

daughterofminosOvid (-43 to +17), a Roman, was one of the best poets ever to write in Latin. He wrote the “Metamorphoses” and the “Art of Love”, among others. Most of our old Greek and Roman stories about heroes, gods and goddesses come from him.

At the end of “Metamorphoses” Ovid said his words would last down through the ages and so they have. The stories he told had been told for ages, even in his time, but no one has told them better.

As one of the best-loved authors in the West from 1100 to 1650, he influenced Dante, Botticelli, Shakespeare and Milton, among others. Shakespeare, for example, did not invent “Romeo and Juliet” – he took it from “Metamorphoses” and set it in Verona.

But even though Ovid was a great poet and storyteller, his writing is not what you would call deep. What depth it has comes from the stories themselves, which he merely retold.

Ovid came from Sulmo to the east of Rome across the mountains. He came from a family of rich blue bloods. His father sent Ovid and his brother to Rome to study rhetoric and law. Ovid did well and in time became a judge.

It looked like one day he might become a senator, but Ovid followed the true passion of his heart and became a poet. He became famous and all was well. But then in the year 8 the First Citizen, Caesar Augustus, banished Ovid.

Augustus gave no reason. Ovid’s “Art of Love” had offended him, it is true, but that was not reason enough. It seems that Ovid knew some deep, dark secret about Augustus.

Ovid was sent to live at the edge of the Black Sea, then called the Pontus. He lived there till his death. We still have the sad letters that he wrote from there.

The “Metamorphoses” tells the history of the world from the Creation down to the time of Augustus by means of stories about Greek gods and heroes. Love, jealousy, betrayal, murder – it is all there, just as in Shakespeare. So are Hercules, Venus, Icarus, Minus, Daphne, Aeneas and so on. It is called the Metamorphoses – Greek for “changing form” – because men turn into trees, birds, cows, stones, stars and even gods.

His “The Art of Love”, written in verse, is just what it sounds like: a handbook for men and women in the art of love. It offended many and helped to get him into trouble.

His earliest work was “Loves”. Well-written but not deep, nevertheless it greatly influenced how love is written about in the West.

In his book “The Feasts” Ovid wrote about the months of the year, telling us a lot about Roman history, custom and religion along the way as well as more of the old Greek and Roman stories. He never finished it: he only got up to June.

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