With the decline of grammar schools in Britain, Classics seemed to be heading for a fall. Recently however, both in the UK and USA, the subject has achieved something of a renaissance. Popular culture, ironically, provides the impetus: Latin is the working language at Hogwarts; Gladiator and Troy are two of the most testosterone-fuelled films of recent years; Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor translate sassy, hard-bitten detective fiction to the weird world of Rome.
Classical history written for a general audience is also flourishing. Media don Mary Beard is in the vanguard with her excellent books The Parthenon (co-authored with Keith Hopkins) and The Colosseum (both are volumes in the super series on buildings and are published by Profile.)
Her new offering is Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Pompeii is not a site well served by investigation, conservation or presentation. So it is a relief to have such a readable, lively and authoritative account of this most famous, if dusty, Roman provincial town.
Mary Beard shovels away the ash, punctures the myths, takes the occasional dig at archaeologists and jolts awake the vibrant, smelly, cosmopolitan Pompeian community – from Nigella the pig-keeper to Diogenes the builder, who advertises with pictures of the tools of his trade, including a penis. Work that one out!
Mary Beard, like Mary Shelley, revitalises old corpses. Readers will want to visit, or revisit Pompeii, with their own senses freshly shaken and stirred.
Chosen by David Miles, quondam Director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit and Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, recently retired to cultivate his garden.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 32. Click here to subscribe