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Under the Volcano - the First and Last Days of Pompeii (level 5)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor: Serafina Cuomo
  • Assessment: two essays of 2500 words and a three-hour examination

Module description

Pompeii is possibly the most famous ancient Roman city after Rome, because of the extraordinary circumstances of its survival. People can walk its streets, enter its houses, laugh at its graffiti, and look at its inhabitants, frozen in the attitude in which they died in AD 79. Along with neighbouring Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplonti, Pompeii has provided historians and archaeologists with a wealth of material: frescoes, mosaics, statuettes, daily implements, remains of foodstuffs, surveying instruments, medical tools, papyri, and wax tablets.

The buildings of Pompeii have allowed reflection on Hellenisation, Romanisation, provincial politics, the artistic taste of freedmen and the integration of different groups within society. In other words, a course on Pompeii (with forays into the neighbourhood) enables you to explore a number of aspects of the social, political, cultural and economic life of the ancient world, while maintaining a well-defined focus. The abundance of primary and secondary literature also provides good material for discussions on historiography.

The course will be divided into two halves, which might be taken separately: the first half (corresponding to the first term) will cover the history of the city, from its origins through its Oscan and Greek, and finally Roman 'phases'. We will look at the city's destruction, and at how it was rediscovered, down to the present day and the debates as to how the site might best be preserved, who Pompeii belongs to, and what it represents for us today. This diachronic history will be complemented by reflection on the infrastructure of the town: houses, roads, water supply and sewage, relation to countryside, urban planning, temples.

The second half will concentrate on people from Pompeii: each lecture will cover a named individual, or a house or establishment (from the town councillor to the freedman, from the brothel to the gymnasium), and try to reconstruct what we can about him, her, or it. The aim is not only to develop your investigative skills, but also to reflect on the historical significance of micro-histories with relation to 'bigger' history.

We will often raise the question: to what extent can the circumstances of Pompeii and its people be generalised to the rest of Italy, or the rest of the Roman world?