I’ve had a longstanding interest in ancient civilisations since I was at school, where I studied Latin and subsequently took a GCSE in Classical Civilisations. I still enjoy reading about the lives of the ancients (the work of Robin Lane Fox being particularly good). I’ve just finished Mary Beard’s Pompeii – the Life of a Roman Town. I’d highly recommend it. Beard paints a compelling portrait of the reality of life in Pompeii. She tells us what we know about how the Romans lived, but is also very good at telling us what we don’t know.
It’s all too easy to think of the Roman civilisation as being essentially “us, with togas”. The reality is that the society of the Romans would be utterly alien to us, with lives which were often, to borrow a quote from elsewhere, nasty, brutish and short. She also reminds us that much of what we think we know about Pompeii itself is either simply untrue or highly misleading. At it’s most basic, for example, we cannot think of Pompeii, as tourists are wont to, as a Roman town captured in aspic in the midst of an ordinary day. The truth was that Vesuvius had been grumbling for weeks before it erupted, and in all probability a large majority of Pompeii’s people had fled long before 25th August 79CE. What was captured under the ashes was a Roman city in the middle of a crisis, at the end of it’s hurried evacuation. As another example, she addresses the infamous brothels, highlighting that we simply don’t know whether there were scores of them or just one, and that to say anything else is merely the work of the imaginations (often, where the sex lives of the Romans are concerned, rather fevered) of scholars.
Overall, Beard does a great job of framing for us what the live of a Roman provincial city in the 1st Century of the Christian Era might well have been like. I’d encourage you to read it.
As an aside, she also touches on what, for me, is one of the great what-ifs of history. The Romans were on the brink of the invention of the steam engine. Their hydraulic engineering was quite extraordinary in it’s sophistication and complexity. Yet they made remarkably little progress in the development of technology generally. It seems probable that this was because of their reliance on slaves. Why would one bother to invent labour saving devices when there was a ready supply of living machines to do the work for you. Had the Romans approached this aspect of their world differently, who knows what levels of technological accomplishment humanity might have reached by today.