On a cool autumn morning in AD79, at a café bar in Pompeii, a slave we will call Festus was preparing a pot of beans and onions in readiness for the lunchtime rush. The barmaids would soon be arriving — the bar doubled as a bordello and the price for extra favours from each of the women was scribbled on the wall beside the counter.
Stirring idly, Festus noticed that the sky had darkened and a roaring noise was building to the north of the city. Whatever was going on felt threatening; he put down his spoon and fled.
Further down Via dell’Abbondanza, the city’s main drag, a baker also sensed the change. He had just posted a second batch of bread into his capacious oven: 80 of the usual round loaves, scored in eight portions, and a larger one, a special order. He went out into the street to find the air full of grit. Could it be another earthquake? Pompeiians were used to those, but this felt different.
On the upper floor of a well-appointed villa at Oplontis, a little way out of the city on the coast, the lady of the house felt the building shake and heard the loud suck and surge of waves in the bay. Stopping to pick up a purse, jewellery and her keys, she ran downstairs to find neighbours and workers gathering outside the big wine warehouse below the villa. Someone opened the stout door of a storeroom, urging everyone in to take shelter.
Whatever was going on felt threatening; he put down his spoon and fled.
That morning Mount Vesuvius had blown its top, releasing a huge cloud of molten rock, stone and soil 12 miles into the sky. Debris rained down on Pompeii and its surrounding settlements. Then came a series of pyroclastic surges, sending avalanches of superheated ash and rock down the slopes of the mountain, wiping out settlements and eventually breaching the city walls of Pompeii.
It was utter devastation and it created a unique time capsule. Centuries later archaeologists would excavate tonnes of impacted, rocky debris, uncovering houses and gardens, sculptures and wall paintings — more frescoes survive here than in the whole of the rest of the Roman Empire — pots and pans with food inside them, including Festus’s bean stew and the baker’s 81 loaves, blackened and hollow. And there were the human remains: the lady of Oplontis — since preserved and cast in resin — was found in the storeroom with 60 others, including two unborn babies.
Paul Roberts was 14, already a budding archaeologist, when his mother took him to Pompeii. Visiting the newly excavated House of the Ephebe, they saw the bodies of a family, laid where they had fallen on a dining terrace overlooking the garden. “It was so moving, seeing those figures,” he says. “I loved emperors and gladiators, but this got me interested in the lives of ordinary people in their bars, kitchens and vineyards.”
Roberts, who curated the British Museum’s smash-hit 2013 exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, is now head of antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and in July he will open Last Supper in Pompeii, showcasing the Roman love affair with food and wine. More than 300 exhibits have been lent, ranging from frescoes depicting scenes of luxurious feasting, to cooking pots and foodstuffs — including one of those blackened loaves — eerily preserved when the volcano stopped time.
Several of the treasures heading for Oxford will come from the monumental Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, which I visited this year with a group led by Roberts. A floor mosaic of fish, each scale made of a tiny glistening tile, “speaks of luxury”, Roberts says. Another, of a skeleton holding a wine jar in each hand, is “a reminder to eat and drink while you can, carpe diem!”. There’s also a figure in bronze, silver and gold bearing a tray and sporting an enormous phallus. “Romans didn’t think penises were rude,” Roberts says.
A mosaic of a skeleton holding a wine jar in each hand is “a reminder to eat and drink while you can, carpe diem!”
Dining, he explains, was central to Roman life; it was convivium — living together — but also about status, showing off. The triclinium, a dining room with a U-shape of three couches in the Greek style, would be sumptuously decorated on walls, floor and ceiling with images of gods and mythical creatures, fruits, birds, plants and scenes of revelry.
The Ashmolean exhibition will recreate the atmosphere of a Pompeiian banquet, with silver dinnerware, sumptuous furnishings, a backdrop of frescoes from the very grand House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii, and a soundscape of twittering birds and plashy fountains.
Unlike among today’s upper and political classes, the kitchen supper, however, clearly was not a thing. Kitchens were altogether less salubrious — small, dark and smoky, often with a latrine in the corner. A slaves’ shrine is scrawled in graffiti: Cacator cave malum – “crapper beware the evil eye”. Here, elaborate feasts were prepared with equipment that visitors to the show will recognise — steam cookers, colanders, moulds, roasting trays — all excavated from the kitchens of Pompeii.
A 1,900-Year-Old Bottle of Olive Oil
A highlight of the show, rarely on display, will be those samples of carbonised food: olives and eggs, figs, carob, almonds, lentils and pomegranates — impossibly fragile — and vials of garum, a ubiquitous fish sauce. Upstairs in the Museo Archeologico’s research rooms a woman in a white lab coat unstoppers a 1,900-year-old bottle of olive oil — also coming to Oxford — and holds it under our noses; it smells faintly of pear drops.
The dashing young director of the museum, Paolo Giulierini, is delighted to be loaning some of his precious objects to the Ashmolean. “Naples’ treasures are universal,” he says. “As our globe faces climate change and desertification, it is important to study the ways of the ancient world.”
To judge from our journeys through the local countryside, the Romans had it pretty good here. As well as vineyards, there are fields of artichokes — some with terracotta hats for sun protection — and smoke curls up from roadside stalls roasting them for sale to passers-by. There are groves of lemons and olives, beehives, acres of glasshouses and wetlands for grazing water buffalo, producers of prized mozzarella. “The whole area around Pompeii was known as campagna felix — happy country,” Roberts says. “It’s basically the Napa Valley.”
At a lunch on the terrace of a restaurant on the slopes of the mountain we drink Lacryma Christi wine and eat tiny pomodoro de piennolo, cherry tomatoes native to the fertile volcanic soil, followed by perfect pasta made from locally grown durum wheat. “The volcano takes, but it also gives,” notes our guide, Carmine Afeltra. We finish with pastiera napoletana, a delicate pastry tart of ricotta, eggs and frangipane.
A few miles from the cantina, Boscoreale is a Roman farm unearthed in 1975 when work began on the foundations for a development of council houses. Excavations to 10m below the surrounding modern township revealed the remains of a vineyard and winery — a yard where wine vessels called dolia were buried up to their necks, a pressing room and the obligatory lararium, or shrine. From here a marble votive to Venus, Bacchus and Hercules will travel to Oxford, along with the plaster cast of a piglet. As well as livestock, there was a market garden containing figs, olives, fruit and walnuts. “Villae rusticae like this were the basis of the Pompeiian economy,” Roberts says. Many were owned by city dwellers who also used them as their country retreats, building bathhouses and commissioning frescoes for the principal rooms.
“The volcano takes, but it also gives.”
The villa at Oplontis was a busy commercial centre, processing produce from surrounding estates. Here were found hundreds of amphorae awaiting export — 1,400 would fill a medium-sized ship — as well as a tonne of pomegranates laid on layers of straw. At least 100 million litres of wine were produced each year in the area around Pompeii and visitors to the exhibition will see beautiful swan-necked amphorae, a bronze in the form of a wineskin and glass wine jugs, miraculously intact. Also coming to Oxford is the villa’s Resin Lady — already packed carefully in her specially made travelling box.
Inside the entrance to Pompeii itself is a big glass-walled room containing casts of people unearthed from the city, their body cavities filled with plaster. Two of the figures embrace; in some, folds of clothing are visible; a child lies close to her mother. “Three hundred degrees [celsius] was not enough to destroy the bodies,” Roberts says, “but death would have been instant. Suffering would have been in the anticipation.”
The Pompeii director, Dr Grete Stefani, whisks us along colonnades, through the palestra, a recreation ground containing a vast swimming pool, to a vineyard in the heart of the restaurant quarter, where you could drop in for a glass of wine, perhaps in a rhyton, or drinking vessel — there is one in the exhibition — and a spot of lunch, taken alfresco. How modern.
Jaw of Dormouse
It was Stefani’s husband, a palaeobotanist (my new favourite word), who identified the pot of beans and onions in the bordello, along with many other foodstuffs: the jaw of a dormouse (a popular delicacy), an amphora of fruits from Palestine, pepper from India, African spices, Egyptian wheat — all making the trip to Oxford. “The Roman Empire was a common market of people, goods and ideas,” Roberts says.
We step carefully into a large house, still under reconstruction, through a stable containing the skeleton of a donkey and into a bakery with its donkey mill, oven and stone kneading machine — an early Kenwood Chef. This was originally a grand private villa, named the House of the Chaste Lovers by archaeologists after a lovely fresco showing a couple kissing tenderly.
Pompeii’s houses yielded so many of these precious artworks in colours ranging from expensive indigo and red cinnabar, to cheaper red and yellow ochre and white calcium carbonate. Makeovers were common to keep up with changing fashions, and four distinct styles evolved in the years before the eruption.
We call in at the home of Julia Felix, evidently a woman of taste. Her triclinium overlooked a rose garden, an orchard of pomegranate, pear and cherry and a marble relief of Socrates. Guests ate and drank to the tinkling sound of a fountain — very World of Interiors. As visitors to the Ashmolean will discover, there is nothing new about our modern aspiration for stylish living; the Romans were way ahead of us.
Last Supper in Pompeii is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, through January 12, 2020. (ashmolean.org)