Top 5 Representations of Pompeii

Poor Pompeii. If Roman Britain thinks it has it bad, being known only for rain, Boudicca and the non-disappearance of the Ninth Legion, Pompeii has it much worse, as it's known for one thing and one thing only. Being destroyed by a volcano, of course. The trouble is, Pompeii's destruction was so dramatic and spectacular, it would seem a waste to go there and not cover it in some way (not to mention if anyone goes to the Bay of Naples in earlier-set Roman fiction, they go to Baiae, the party town, as do actual Romans in historical sources). And so, a Top 5 that might as well be called 'Top 5 Representations of the Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.'

Incidentally, Mary Beard just did a rather good reflection on the very famous 'bodies' from Pompeii, which are actually plaster casts. There were no human remains in the city - there were holes in the solidified lava that were human-shaped, so Victorian archaeologists poured plaster into the holes to produce statue-like images of the attitudes in which these people died, where the lava originally flowed around their bodies after they'd been killed by the pyroclastic flow (or surge - there seems to be some disagreement over which it was). More human-looking than skeletons, they're very moving to look at and dominate representations of the eruption.

5. The Simpsons, 'The Italian Bob'
Why are we in Pompeii? The Simpsons does Italy, taking the title characters on a tour in Mr Burns' new car, so they don't even have to come up with a reason to hit a list of random Famous Things About Italy (in an order than makes no geographical sense). The Roman Forum and the Colosseum are kept for the climax, but Pompeii makes it into Italy's Greatest Hits alongside the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a picturesque Tuscan village and a McDonald's that serves wine.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. We're here for a single, volcano-based sight gag.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Sort of.
Worth a watch: Lisa inaccurately says that the victims of Pompeii (which is given the spelling of the modern town, Pompei, not the ancient Roman spelling) were frozen in whatever position they died in, implying the bodies are actually petrified corpses. Which, of course, they're not. But it's probably worth it for the sight gag of an ancient Roman family who look exactly like the Simpsons, complete with Roman-Homer choking Roman-Bart (which I have to admit is my least favourite running gag in the whole show, but it's become iconic now. My favourite iteration of it is the bit in the VH-1 Behind the Music spoof 'Behind the Laughter,' in which Homer explains, over the usual image, 'And that horrible act of child abuse became one of our most beloved running gags').

4. Pompeii: The Last Day
Why are we in Pompeii? For a BBC docu-drama whose title was presumably inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous nineteenth century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, and its various adaptations.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Bulwer-Lytton had all sorts of preachy stuff about terrible Roman morals and how somehow this led to death by volcano (I think - I have to confess, I haven't read it) but that sort of thing's gone out of fashion (partly for being untrue) and this docu-drama is all about getting to everybody's horrible deaths.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Oh yes.
Worth a watch: I don't normally like docu-dramas - I think things ought to be either documentaries or dramas. Either talk about the evidence and the debates surrounding a topic, or write a proper fictionalisation of it. This is party because I'm a bit of a purist, and partly because I don't like the implication you get from docu-dramas that their largely fictionalised version of events is somehow the 'correct' or 'true' one. At least when people watch a fictionalised drama, they know it's fictionalised and don't expect anything else.

Anyway, I've made an exception in this case because I think there are advantages to using the docu-drama format to tell the story of Pompeii. We understand details concerning the nature of the pyroclastic flow that destroyed the city that the Romans didn't, so a modern narrator can explain what's happening much more clearly than Roman characters within a story would be able to. The geology of how the volcano erupted and the different (though equally gory) ways people died in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum is fascinating but you need documentary-style narration to tell that story properly, in a way that you don't necessarily in dramatisations of political or military events. Meanwhile, the fictionalised elements offer a moving representation of the human side of the story, and the moments towards the end where the characters we've been following move into place to become the famous plaster casts of the inhabitants of Pompeii crouching where they died are quite chilling.

3. Up Pompeii!
Why are we in Pompeii? For Plautine-style hijinks with people who thought it was a good idea to name their daughter 'Erotica.'
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? Yes, which is partly why it makes the list. The TV series ran for a couple of years, using Pompeii as a setting, presumably because it's the best known Roman town outside of the city. The film made from the series is more about working up to the eruption, but even in the film this only occurs at the end, to provide a suitably dramatic climax.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? Much like the Simpsons example above - sort of.
Worth a watch: There've been better comedies set in ancient Rome. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for one, which inspired Up Pompeii! in the first place, and certainly Carry on Cleo. But Up Pompeii! is entertaining enough. And then, at the end of the film, the volcano erupts. The film has been so completely silly that it can't take the eruption entirely seriously, and yet the knowledge that what is being presented is the real-life death of hundreds of people means a certain level of gravity is required. It's hard to say whether the film achieves the required balance - the characters from the series being frozen in awkward moments (rather inaccurately implying they're somehow turned to stone, or something along those lines) are half funny, half a bit strange. On the other hand, there's something about Frankie Howerd facing his inevitable doom with comic dignity is rather wonderful.

2. Doctor Who, 'The Fires of Pompeii'
Why are we in Pompeii? Because Doctor Who hadn't done a full-on Roman-set story since 'The Romans' in the 1960s. Perhaps more importantly, because the production team were able to use the sets recently vacated by the BBC/HBO series Rome.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No. Though the Doctor and Donna do have some fun with the TARDIS' translation magic while trying to work out how to avoid ending up with a sonic screwdriver-shaped hole in the lava.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the Doctor saves Caecilius and family just before the full force of the pyroclastic flow/surge hits the town. (Which, incidentally, was caused by the Doctor and Donna, who had to blow up Vesuvius to save the Earth from a Pyrovile. Obviously.)
Worth a watch: 'The Fires of Pompeii' was the episode that showed us the sort of companion Donna could be. 'Partners in Crime' was funny, but 'Pompeii' is dramatic and moving, show-casing not just Catherine Tate's acting but how the team would be writing for Donna. The show has repeated many times over the last few years its mantra that the Doctor needs a companion to keep him grounded and provide an emotional connection with the people he meets, but this is one of the episodes that shows it most effectively. And of course, the icing on the cake is that the people Donna persuades the Doctor to save are Caecilius and his family, characters from the Cambridge Latin books that children who learn Latin in school in the UK use (I actually didn't learn Latin in school, but borrowed a book and learned some of it anyway, because I'm weird that way). And for everyone who didn't learn Latin in school - Caecilius was also a real person and you can visit his house in Pompeii. So that's pretty cool.

1. The Roman Mysteries, 'The Secrets of Vesuvius'
Why are we in Pompeii? Well, we're not exactly - we're in and around the Bay of Naples, within sight of Pompeii. And we're there because that's where Uncle Gaius lives.
Are we here for anything other than an erupting volcano? No - but we do learn lots about the Elder and Younger Plinys along the way.
Do we see the famous plaster casts? No - the children are further away than the victims in Pompeii, though Pliny succumbs to choking on the ash (in his Letters the Younger Pliny mentions that his uncle had suffered from breathing problems already, and whatever his condition was, the ash in the air was enough to kill him while others around him survived).
Worth a watch: I haven't had a chance to read the book yet (it's on my list to read!) but the TV adaptation of this book is excellent. This is in no small part thanks to the casting of Simon Callow as Pliny the Elder, which is just brilliant. I love Pliny the Elder (his Natural History is fascinating) and I love Simon Callow, and Callow has all the gravitas combined with fun required to play a general with an interest in unusual flora and fauna and general curiosity and enthusiasm about the world. We're spared the gruesome fate of those in Pompeii and Herculaneum here, as our heroes a) are in a children's programme but more importantly b) have to survive, but there's plenty of drama and horror in the distant eruption and the falling ash, not to mention poor Pliny's death. Brilliant stuff.

Honourable mention: I haven't yet read Robert Harris' Pompeii, but I thought his Imperium was excellent, so I'm sure Pompeii is great.

More Top 5s


  1. This is very kind of you but I must tell you that the TV version made at least 3 bloopers (that don't appear in my book). I was powerless to stop them even though I was on location in Tunisia during the filming of the eruption scene and visited the editing suite back in London.

    1. Admiral Pliny wears armour when he goes to investigate the eruption even though his title was an administrative one. (This is because the wonderful Simon Callow had his heart set on dressing up!)

    2. CGI Vesuvius looks like it does NOW and not as it did before that first big eruption, even though we have a wonderful fresco of it BEFORE which they even used in the episode!

    3. "Get under the water!" commands Flavia as the pyroclastic flow rushes towards them like a tsunami of white-hot ash. Only problem was that the sea was practically boiling and covered with a layer of ash and pumice. The survivors hit the sand.

    Three things the makers of the TV adaptation got right.
    1. Rodents, snakes and other animals really did flee the day before the eruption.
    2. People really did put dampened cushions on their heads to protect themselves from fire and falling rocks.
    3. Pliny really did die gasping like a fish on the beach at Stabia.

    So if you liked the episode, hopefully you'll like the book even more!

    1. I did wonder about the hiding-under-the-water thing! Looking forward to reading the book (hoping to catch up on reading over Christmas!)

  2. There's a short story by Louis Untermeyer called "The Dog of Pompeii" that was inspired by one of the dogs that turned up among the plaster casts. Seems to be quite popular among middle school teachers (grades 6-8) despite its depressing ending. It also seems to have been turned into a short film. I know I read it quite a bit when I was 9 or 10.

  3. I can give you two other things about Pompeii. Both are songs. The first is a video, in English. The second is the French translation of that song from the video.

    I could list some other interpretations by other people, but they are all on youtube, and I do not want to use up all your electronic ink...

    Then too, I can say that it is interesting to compare Pompeii to other great eruptions in history, and to works about them! Take the film "Krakatoa, East of Java"... So many errors! Then too there are the events of the Mount St. Helens eruption.

    1. Take the film "Krakatoa, East of Java"... So many errors!

      Not least of which is that Krakatoa is west of Java!

    2. I vaguely remember hearing the phrase 'once in a blue moon' relates to a volcanic eruption which made the moon appear blue - does anyone know if that's true?

    3. Well, large-scale volcanic eruptions or really smoky wildfires, like from peat bogs, can make the moon look blue, but the phrase most likely comes from the poor fit between the solar and lunar years. One theory says it comes from a full moon screwing up the Easter calculations and another one says it comes from there only being 12 names for full moons (Hunter's, Harvest, etc.) and the 13th then being "blue".

  4. The best thing about Pompeii is that it keeps most of the tourists away from Herculaneum, which is (or so I hear, having only visited the latter myself and avoided the former on said recommendations), a much more interesting site -- and, not being overrun, much more accessible and enjoyable. But don't tell anyone!

    And, as long as we're doing songs, here's Dar Williams.

  5. It does have to do with that rare extra moon in a month.

  6. I learned Latin in school, but we used Ecce Romani ;)

  7. I'm surprised no one noticed your funny and fitting innuendo in the erotic Up Pompeii section: "The film made from the series is more about working up to the eruption, but even in the film this only occurs at the end, to provide a suitably dramatic climax." That line kills! Gods I hope you did that on purpose.

    1. 'Eruption' was a happy coincidence - but 'climax' was deliberate :)


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