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January 21, 2011updated 25 Jan 2016 6:12pm

Hard Times in Herculaneum

By Clive Aslet

Taking your school-age kids to inspect Roman ruins is edifying, educational and enjoyable. Just be prepared for lots of snickering and rude jokes, says Clive Aslet  
WHEN I WAS young and radical I used to despise places like the Bay of Naples, where what used to be fishing villages have become opulent seaside resorts. Where was the authenticity, I used to fume.

But the years passed and I came to see that authenticity is like the Loch Ness monster; if you’re looking for it, you won’t find it — and if you did, it wouldn’t necessarily be nice. There is much to be said for places where tourist skills have been honed. At Sorrento, they have been polishing their welcome since before Christ. The Emperor Augustus came here in the 1st century AD; the hotel where we stayed, the grandiloquently named Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, contained the ruins of his bath house next to the swimming pool. In the intervening centuries they have perfected the art of making visitors comfortable while substantially lightening their wallets, and it’s wonderful. More recently, Richard Wagner came, presumably breakfasting, like us, beneath frescoed domes. What was good enough for a sybarite like Wagner is good enough for me.

It was, however, the ancient world that brought us. We wanted to show the boys Herculaneum and Pompeii, which I remember as nothing but heat and dust, bumpy streets and incomprehensible walls from the visits I made as a student. October half-term, selected as balmy, was not quite as dulcet as we’d hoped, in fact the sort of weather that makes you shell out a fortune for umbrellas that you wouldn’t otherwise wish to be seen carrying.

In Pompeii, the rain made a useful point. The pavements are set at a surprising height above the level of the streets, so at frequent intervals the Romans built stepping stones on which to hop from one side to the other. Why? In wet weather, the roads turn into gunnels, sluiced with water — enough, one must hope, to wash away the contents of the chamber pots thrown into them.

Herculaneum, by contrast, was better off; it had an underground sewer. But then this fishing village had been colonised, just like so many modern equivalents on beautiful coastlines around the world, by rich retirees — in this case, soldiers who had done well out of their army service and wanted to spend the twilight of their days looking out over the azure sea and buggering their slaves.

I say buggering, but that is perhaps a generalisation. Not all sex was male-on-male, or with slaves. Male-on-female, or — in the case of divinities — male-on-goat was acceptable, as was virtually any other permutation, if we can believe the wall paintings and statuettes in the two doomed towns. To the delight of our children, phalluses were a common decorative motif, sometimes displayed as though in temples or, in the case of one superhuman marble in the Naples Museum of Archaeology (one of the great under-visited museums in the world), nestling in the hand of a god. They meant good luck, power and, well, the fun that could be had with an erectile organ, in this land where anything went.  
THE OPULENT VILLAS, with their shady atria and mosaics, suggest a way of life that seems deceptively like that of the rich of today. Very pleasant, some of them had been made. There was almost an obsession with interior decorating, to judge from the number of painted walls, while the best of the mosaic floors look like paintings — modern carpets look a poor second best.

The best indoor space was always the dining room, where you could eat or drink yourself sick during a feast; stone benches were sometimes installed outdoors for alfresco meals. Quite how they managed to produce such epic blowouts from what appear to have been galley kitchens is a mystery. If there was a lavatory, it was generally next to the kitchen. What the hell; you can only die once. A volcano might get you before the germs.

You can feel at home with the Romans. Their portrait sculptors recorded their features with what appears to have been uncanny faithfulness; Vespasian, for example, looked like a builder, the sort of chummy oaf you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the plane home. They liked their comforts, and they exercised in the gym. Admittedly, they liked to watch gladiators torn to pieces by wild animals, and they did not take baths at home. But who needs a bathroom when you can while away an afternoon at the bath house with your friends?

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If you were rich, you could be private, then as now, once you had got out of the street. But a 21st-century house-buyer would probably find drawbacks. The only nuisance that the modern visitor encounters in Pompeii is other tourists. In the 1st century, the filth and stink would have required either a strong stomach or blocked nostrils. It is said you can’t polish a turd, but the Romans — creating sophisticated porticos next to streets thick with ordure and fulling mills reeking of urine — gave it their best shot. 

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