We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision.

Pliny the Younger, Letter 6.20, to Tacitus, describing the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii.

There is a magnificent exhibition on at Te Papa, about Pompeii, the Roman town destroyed by Vesuvius in 79AD. If you are in Wellington, you should go to it. Now. We visited it last Saturday when it opened, and it has been in my mind ever since.*

The artefacts recovered from Pompeii and on display are fascinating. But it was the plaster casts of bodies of people who died in the eruption that moved me most. Two women lying together, a dog chained to a wall and a prisoner shackled, a man crouching in a corner, cloak over his mouth. My children were oddly matter-of-fact about them, but I was not, and I mourned for the deaths of these unknown people over 1900 years ago.

The exhibition includes a 3D video reconstruction of what the eruption would have looked like from from the time of the first rumbling earthquakes through to the pyroclastic flows that would have killed any people who still remained alive in Pompeii, to the final fall of ash. I found it fascinating, and horrifying; te maunga, Mount Taranaki, under which my parents live is a stratovolcano, like Vesuvius.

Pliny the Younger wrote an eye-witness account of it, so accurate that similar eruptions are called Plinian eruptions. There are some quotes from his letters on the walls, including the one at start of this post, which grabbed me. And this one moved me:

Then my mother began to beg and urge and order me to flee however I might, saying that a young man could make it, that she, weighed down in years and body, would die happy if she escaped being the cause of my death. I replied that I wouldn’t save myself without her…

As we entered the exhibition, there was a contemporary artefact that gives a glimpse into life in 21st century New Zealand. The first panel describing the exhibition, and setting the scene, is accompanied by a translation, into Te Reo, Maori language.


* The cost for a family to go to the exhibition is $35, but to my relief, a “family” is defined as two adults and up to three children.


2 responses to “Pompeii

  1. I used Pliny for “Ardent Clouds”, a story about volcano groupies (yes there really are such people). His account is extraordinary reportage, not bettered in the annals of vulcanism even after 2000 years.

  2. Didn’t know you were back in town. I am keen to go see it. Some of the artefacts sound like the ones normally on display at Pompeii itself.