My summer sojourn for a fortnight on the Amalfi coast in Italy enabled me to visit Mount Vesuvius near Naples and to see the ruins of Pompeii, or at least part of the large site. Time did not permit a trip to nearby Herculaneum. But I watched with interest tonight a documentary on BBC2 about “The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum. Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill from Cambridge and Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project presented the programme. In it he follows the scientific investigation that aims to lift the lid on what life was like in the small Roman town of Herculaneum, moments before it was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD.
Ten miles from Pompeii, twelve arched vaults at Herculaneum were found to contain the skeletons of over 340 people, just 10% of the local population, killed by the volcano. The finds included a toddler clutching his pet dog, a two-year-old girl with silver earrings and a boy staring into the eyes of his mother as they embraced in their last moment. Those found inside the vaults were nearly all women and children. Those found outside on the shoreline were nearly all men, in what appeared to be a selfless act on their part.
The documentary based on the research unravelled a surprising story of resilience, courage and humanity, with the local population going to their deaths not in the orgy of self-destruction often portrayed in Pompeii’s popular myth, but, much more like the passengers of the Titanic, it seems the ancient inhabitants of Herculaneum put women and children first.
The BBC programme and another related one broadcast last Wednesday on “Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time” coincide with the opening of a major exhibition at the British Museum. “Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum” will run until the end of September and the normal admission price is £15.