Pompeii: The Living City

ISBN: 0312355858
ISBN 13: 9780312355852
By: Alex Butterworth Ray Laurence

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About this book

The ash of Mt. Vesuvius preserves a living record of the complex and exhilarating society it instantly obliterated two thousand years ago. In this highly readable, lavishly illustrated book, Butterworth and Laurence marshall cutting-edge archaeological reconstructions and a vibrant historical tradition dating to Pliny and Tacitus; they present a richly textured portrait of a society not altogether unlike ours, composed of individuals ordinary and extraordinary who pursued commerce, politics, family and pleasure in the shadow of a killer volcano.  Deeply resonant in a world still at the mercy of natural disaster, Pompeii recreates life as experienced in the city, and those frantic, awful hours in AD 79 that wiped the bustling city from the face of the earth.

Reader's Thoughts


A very interesting approach to academic historical writing. Exquisitely drawn thematic chapters, packed with interesting detail, are strung together by fictional vignettes of life in Pompeii as imagined by the author and based on obviously extensive research. I have very much enjoyed this book, although I am left, as ever, bewildered and disgusted by the cruelty of Roman society.


An excellent look at the last 25 years of the life of the city of Pompeii. It shows the reader the ordinary life of the city from the lowest (slaves, prostitutes, gladiators) to the highest (the emperor's villa's and city politics). You are also given a good overview of the various earthquakes in the lead up to the final volcanic explosion and the impact they had on city life. This is a lively, interesting and easy to read book for non-specialists on the last years of this fascinating city.


Deals with the 25 years before pompeii's destruction. Focusses more on little details like the lives of everyday people, but also takes care to explain the historical big picture.Not a standard history of pompeii, rather a reconstruction of the lives of the people, their customs, their aspirations, hopes and fears, as they tread their way through major upheavals.Mixes hardcore historical narration with speculation and outright fictitious accounts of characters quite well.Sometimes the roman names are confusing though and might be off-putting. But once you get the hang of that, a good read this one.


Amazingly detailed depiction of life in Pompeii before AD 79. I had hoped for more regarding the eruption itself, but that's not really the point of this book.

Tom Stallard

I'm rather conflicted about this book, because provides a detailed narrative about the rise and fall of Pompeii, as well as showing the archeological importance of the site to our broader understanding of Roman everyday life. However, it takes its narrative elements far too far. At the start of every chapter is a little piece of fiction that is more or less rooted in history, depending upon the chapter. I found these very distracting - not nearly high enough quality compared with the non-fiction bulk of the book. However, in skipping these sections, you are left with the feeling that you are missing something important, since the non-fiction section of each chapter often lead on from this fictional part. It is a style of writing that, given some care, could have worked well. Unfortunately here, it just distracts from the message of the book.


Filled with vivid detail about life in Pompeii and in first century Rome; I enjoyed it all the more since I've visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum. I particularly appreciated info on the economics and industries of the time. It never occurred to me when I was admiring the ruins of ancient Roman public rest rooms in Pompeii that one man's waste was another's valuable commodity. Urine was used by tanners, gold and silversmiths, dye-makers and fruit growers; indeed so coveted was the 'golden liquid' that enterprising industrialists would hang collection buckets along city walls and the Empire would eventually try to tax it. And this was one of the least gritty details!The final chapter, Apocalypse, provides a horribly graphic, moving description of the terror endured by those trapped again and again by repeated explosions of pumice, ash and burning poisonous sulfuric gas. Pliny the Younger watched the distruction helplessly from the safety of Misenum knowing that his uncle was likely trapped there. Pliny described the fiery column of pumice thrust twenty seven miles into the air, ultimately spreading out into what "today [is]...known as a mushroom cloud. It was the beginning of a discharge of explosive power that...would exceed one hundred thousand times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima."On the downside, the book's uneven narrative structure is very distracting; long stretches of fiction, set in nearly unreadable 10 point italic type, break up the terrific non-fiction sections. Really a shame since there is so much here that's great.


Fascinating read as the authors do a brilliant job of describing life as it was at Pompeii just prior to the eruption of Vesuvius.

Rjurik Davidson

A good introduction to Pompeii, filled with colour and lively detail. The fictional vignettes can be a bit cheesy at times, and it's not always easy to know where any particular information is located. Still, overall an excellent place to begin.


Stumbled across this at Fairwood - loving it!!

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