Friday, 25 August 2017

Social media changing my perspective on the Vesuvian eruption of 79 CE

For some reason this year the accepted anniversary of the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius (24th of August) left me with a feeling of deep sadness. I became fully aware that this was a humanitarian disaster, not just by modern standards, but also Roman standards. 
As an ancient historian I've always tried to not judge ancient societies by the social standards of today, and I've tried to keep top of mind that human life was not valued as highly in the Roman world as it is in my own, and I think being overly aware of this might have coloured my perspective of what happened 1938 years ago.
So what has led me to this new perception of the past? I think it was the cumulative effect of my Facebook newsfeed.
Anyone who is a member of the CAHS - Classics and Ancient History Society at UQ group on Facebook can attest, my Facebook newsfeed is devoted to an awful lot of archaeology and history focussed pages and publications, which allows me to post quite a lot of material to the group. In addition to disseminating this material, it keeps me abreast of news relating to recent discoveries and different views of the past. One of these pages is the official Pompeii page Pompeii - Parco Archelogico. This page had primed me for this shift in focus on the 8th of August with a photograph I hadn't seen before; that of a collection of amphorae left upside-down to dry found outside a warehouse at Oplontis.Accompanying this was a vivid description of how fruit harvests were collected and prepared so they were preserved for the winter, and how old wine amphorae were washed with sea water and left to dry before they were again tarred and reused. They gave no source for this description (much to my annoyance), but the overall effect with this photo was to leave me with a visceral sense of life interrupted. 
Upside-down wine amphorae drying at OplontisA few days prior to this, on the 5th of August, Kristina Killgrove posted a photograph from the work she has now completed at the same site, Oplontis. It was of a woven mat which featured the impression left by a fig which was found under a pedestal of dirt under a human skeleton inside a warehouse. I do not know if this is the same warehouse, but they are near to each other. Dr Killgrove also described the room in which these victims had sought shelter as containing a large number of pomegranates laid out on woven mats.
Woven mat featuring the impression of a fig found under a pedestal of dirt which had been supporting skeletal remains inside a ware house at Oplontis.
These two posts brought home to me the realisation of the time of year at which the eruption occurred: late summer, early autumn.
I had never given that any thought before. To my mind the eruption was 79 CE, and I'd always framed it in two ways: politically, as the year Vespasian died, and in light of the death of Pliny the Elder. Pliny's Natural History is my favourite all time ancient text, so Pliny holds a special place in my heart.
I had always focussed more on Pliny's death rather than his actions immediately preceding it. I was aware of his role in commanding the Roman fleet based in the Bay of Naples to evacuate people trying to flee the eruption, but I hadn't juxtaposed this with the "cheapness of life" trope, and seen how they didn't precisely align. The attempts to evacuate using apparatus of the Roman state, the navy, more closely aligns with a response to a humanitarian disaster rather than the "death comes to us all, and lives are something which can be purchased" idea. I only did this for the first time yesterday.
We know that people were evacuated, and we know that people died close to the shore, hoping that the ships would find them (consider the 55 individuals whose remains were found in boathouses at Herculaneum who were waiting for rescue), but the idea of this being a humanitarian disaster by Roman standards just did not fully occur to me.
Then, in addition to these two posts, the Sententiae Antiquae blog posted Martial's epigram on the eruption to remembrance of the anniversary. I love Martial's work for its playfulness. He was a poet who poked fun at those he thought deserved it with a sharp wit, a sharper stylus, and a sense of "society's ideas of what is right and proper be damned". But when describing this event, my playful, happy poet was gone. Instead he wrote:
This is Vesuvius, but lately green with shade of vines. Here the noble grape loaded the vats to overflowing. These slopes were more dear to Bacchus than Nysa's hills, on this mountain not long ago Satyrs held their dances. This was Venus' dwelling, more pleasing to her than Lacedaemon, this spot the name of Hercules made famous. All lies sunk in flames and drear ashes. The High Ones themselves would rather this had not been in their power.
Shackleton Bailey 1993 Loeb translation of Martial 4.44.
The combination of Martial's solemnity, brought to my attention by social media, and a few social media posts has made me look at the eruption in a new way. I had always been aware of the human loss of life (the plaster cast of the swaddled baby at the Naples Museum when I visited in 2003 got to me, but the chained up dog upset me even more), but today I am viewing the catastrophe differently as a direct result of social media posts. These posts made me acknowledge the not just the destruction wrought by the eruption, but by looking at the materials frozen a sense of the immediacy of it has been highlighted in my psyche. They made me acknowledge the time of year, late summer/early autumn, which would have been exceptionally busy on account of the harvests taking place, and how these yearly preparations were frozen not just in time but in catastrophe. And the posting of Martial's poem, which I hadn't properly read prior to this, made me realise that at the very least, the rest of Italy watched (figuratively) on in horror as this disaster occurred, and made me fully consider the greater implications of Pliny's actions in coordinating evacuations. The eruption was of 79'CE was an ancient humanitarian disaster, and complete societies were destroyed at one of the most important times of the year, and social media posts made me fully realise this.

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