Review | Pompeii: Life in an Ancient Roman City – Steven L. Tuck

About this Lecture Series

For centuries, Pompeii has been a popular destination and subject of study for people interested in cultural history. It has become one of the most famous and most visited archaeological sites in the world. This course is an introduction to the famous city for those planning a trip, for those who have been there, and for those who wish to visit vicariously. The course begins with a consideration of the place of Pompeii in our understanding of the Roman past and its unique role as a source of information about daily life in ancient Italy. It then considers the geological and topographical background of the city and the region of Campania.

The course takes us on a series of walks through Pompeii. We explore the city’s principal roads, major civic and religious buildings, and different types of dwellings. In practical terms, each lecture can be viewed as a walk through one section of the city, whether Pompeii or Herculaneum, or a villa site. Those who plan to visit can recreate these walks themselves or select the spaces along them that they most want to visit. It is more than a walking tour of the city in its “last days,” however. The goal of the course is to present a picture of the entire history of the city and the disparate experiences of its inhabitants, and to free us from the tyranny of studying only the Pompeii of the eruption of A.D. 79. The result is an appreciation that, to diverse people at various times, Pompeii represented a very different city. This course will introduce the key historical events and periods as well as the spaces and people of Pompeii.

24 lectures (30 minutes each)
Find out more here

My husband and I just finished watching this course, and I figured I’d sit down and write some thoughts about it. First, neither of us are terribly well-versed on all things Roman. However, Pompeii is kind of an exception because we’ve been to a few Pompeii exhibits, so we know about as much as the average person who has been to a few Pompeii exhibits. That being said, who wouldn’t think a lecture series on Pompeii, the infamous city at the bottom of Vesuvius, would be interesting?

This lecture series is 24 lectures long, each one numbering 30 minutes. It took us maybe a week and a half to get through them, watching a lecture or two each night after the kids went to sleep. It wasn’t bad at all. However, there were some lectures, especially toward the middle, where things got really into the weeds and the lectures put us both to sleep (Let’s be honest, I also think the fact that we were really, really tired when we watched them played into this a bit).

Steven L. Tuck has an obvious passion for his topic. He really knows what he’s talking about, and like most professors I remember from my university days, he’d often geek out and crack jokes about stuff that (likely) only he and his ardent, die-hard students understand. I find stuff like that fun, though, because it really shows his passion for his topic, and that tends to make the learning experience a lot more exciting.

This isn’t just about the eruption of Vesuvius. This course goes from the founding of the city by (likely) Etruscans, and throughout its various incarnations until the Roman world really settled there. He talks about the port location, and how it was important for grain shipments to the larger Roman world. He also goes into the shops, religious sites, the daily life of a slave, bathing areas and even shows the last surviving brothel. One of the last lectures is about a winery, and there’s even one about a house that was for rent, and how that whole situation worked. I enjoyed the lecture about how people would decorate various rooms in their houses, and why, quite a lot more than I expected. I don’t think I realized how important decorating was to the whole socializing and conversation socializing thing until that one.

What’s amazing here, is how much information they have about Pompeii, just based on how well things were preserved throughout the ages. In an early lecture, he spoke a bit about how the kings of Naples in the 1700-1800’s would mine the area for relics, and then send them all over Europe to other royals as a mark of favor, so a whole lot was lost. However, eventually things got under control and people were put in charge of the site who wanted to preserve it, and keep its as whole as possible. Apparently there are hundreds of scrolls that have been found. The Vatican has a whole bunch of them. They are so incredibly fragile that the only way to unravel and read them is with this machine that was invented a few hundred years ago that uses catgut to carefully open them up. Now, I think they are likely also using x-ray technology and etc as well to see what these scrolls contain, but for a long time, the only way to read this stuff was to string it up to this catgut machine.

In the 1900’s, there was an archeologist who would make plaster casts of the roots that were left in the ash of Pompeii, and so now they can find what plants were growing there, and plant them again in certain areas. This makes the lecture about vineyards really interesting, because now they have tracked down the actual grapes that were growing in the days of Pompeii, and have re-planted them and have entire vineyards growing where they used to grow, more or less like they had all those hundreds of years ago.

All in all, this lecture was really interesting. I learned a whole lot about life in a typical Roman city that I had no idea about before, like the life of a slave, typical wedding traditions, cult worship, burials, trade centers, bathing, wineries, even how you’d go about renting a house. He also had a lecture that was about how people would run for office, and a lot of their advertisements are still on the walls there, and that really fascinated me, as it delved a bit into gladiatorial competitions and etc.

Pompeii is a fascinating look into an ancient city. The ash and etc. preserved it in a way that most other places just aren’t, so we can still see so much, like paintings on the walls, and decorations, and what have you. While a lot of this stuff has been taken over the years and sent off to God only knows who, a whole lot of it has been tracked down, preserved, and studied. It’s kind of interesting how such a terrible tragedy ended up being the thing that preserved this place so well for future generations.

While there were a few lectures in the middle that were a bit of a slog, all in all, this lecture series really, really blew me away. I learned a whole lot more than I was expecting. A vast swath of time was covered (I didn’t realize that people had settled in this area so far back, I guess), and a lot of culture examined. However, it was really neat to be able to have such a detailed, well-preserved window into an ancient Roman city, and Steven L. Tuck was the perfect person to lead me through it and help me understand.

Highly recommend.


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