The ruins of old Pompeii give us a snapshot of life in a Roman city in 79 CE. The empty houses and plaster casts of bodies frozen in terror give the impression of a normal city perfectly preserved after an instantaneous apocalypse - bread still in the oven and the dying person holding a cloth over their mouth as they gasp a few last desperate gasps while buried under the ash. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE did not, however, capture a normal Roman city. It caught Pompeii (and how close Pompeii was to a "normal" Roman city is debatable) after 17 years of turmoil and social change, starting with an enormous earthquake in 62 CE and probably a series of minor earthquakes in the leadup to the eruption. Far from being an instantaneous apocalypse, the volcano probably killed only 10% of the population, with 90% leaving the city during the lead-up or fleeing on the first day of the eruption. Some of these probably came back after the eruption to rescue hidden treasures or loot abandoned houses. Seen through this lens the enormous archaeological trove of Pompeii becomes every more complex - interpretations made from particular finds could reflect the normal life of an ancient Roman, or they could be a chance oddity of circumstance.
After walking around the ruins of Pompeii I took enormous pleasure from reading Mary Beard's "Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town". She makes an excellent case for both the richness of archaeological evidence from Pompeii, and the unstable edifices of theory which are presented as fact. Graffiti scrawled onto the walls claims that Pompeii women were highly attracted to gladiators. But should this claim be taken at face value? Or should the location of this graffiti (almost exclusively written in the barracks of gladiators) indicate that this was more boastful claim than cultural norm? I especially enjoying learning about the politicians and prostitutes of Pompeii.
Many political posters are preserved in Pompeii, with support listed for one candidate or another on the equivalent of the city council. While this may represent a vibrant political process, the messages are more proclamations of support rather than a political discourse, and so may represent instead the tribal nature of the electoral process. What I found really interesting is the dirtiness of the politics in ancient Pompeii. As well as signs of (presumably) honest support by individual citizens or coalitions, other signs appear to be faked support to make a candidate disreputable, with signs painted on houses claiming support of a candidate by "the pickpockets", "the idlers", "the runaway slaves". We can be fairly sure that these were negative campaigning as in some cases the supporter name was covered over while leaving up the candidate name - indicating that the repainter was happy with the message of support, but not with the group that was purported to be the source of that support. Not a hair of difference between ancient Pompeii and Australia in 2007.
Prostitution is assumed to be big business in ancient Pompeii, with claims to over 35 brothels in a city with only 30,000 free men. The vast majority of these "brothels" are labelled as such based on graffiti which either pictures a phallus or makes claims about the price of particular young ladies - a criteria which, if used today, would label every bus shelter and bar bathroom as a brothel. While casual prostitution may have been common, there is likely only one brothel in Pompeii, where the combination of graffiti and paintwork are unmistakable. Even here, however, many interpretations can be made - are the explicit pictures pornography to set the mood? Or a menu?