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The Pompeii dilemma

Last week, Jeff and I took our son Scott and his wife Kimberly to Pompeii, Italy, (not far from Naples.) There is probably no place on earth with a clearer picture of daily life in Ancient times. Mt. Vesuvius' eruption was such that humans and animals alike were cooked and encased in a cement/like ash all in an instant.

Food was left in the cafes' pots, waiting to be served to hungry customers.

Bread burned in the ovens, and panicked citizens raced to the port, hoping for a little space on a wooden boat. Others sat down, covered their faces and waited for death.

1600 years passed. The exposed parts of the structures were looted/recycled by locals. Eventually, archeologists decided to begin uncovering the site of the once-prosperous town. (right fast food counter where recessed clay pots kept food hot)

Below: Private home's irrigated courtyard)

Over and over, they found strange, irregularly shaped cavities in volcanic ash-turned-cement. Inside there might be a scrap of bone or a tooth. At last they guessed what had happened. The next time they encountered a mysterious void in the volcanic earth, they filled the opening with plaster and let it harden. When they chipped away volcanic material, sure enough the forms of people and animals posed in their last instant of death emerged. Even the expressions on their faces are discernable.


What more fascinating setting for a novel? Would the characters get away? Why did some stay?



(Left: plaster cast of young man in the moment of death. Above, Decorated ceiling of a bathhouse entryway) Their work and play, slaves and masters, artists and connoisseurs, rich and poor: the stories that are left behind are easy pickin's for a historical fiction writer.

Below: mosiac in the entryway of a private home


HOWEVER, Pompeii's snapshot in time is so complete and well-focused that we also know that human trafficking was rampant. Prostitutes advertised on every corner. Even many of the statues and frescoes in lavish houses are pornographic. (I won't show you those, of course)

Vice was openly advertised, invited and encouraged. Temples to their pantheon of gods adorned their most public places.

So who would my characters be? The abused or the abusers? The slave or the master? The exploiter or the exploited?

Left: One of many frescoes of mythological scenes on the walls of a private home. Below remains of public buildings with the volcano behind. Vesuvius is still very active. The last major eruption was about 80 years ago.


The Roman city of Pompeii and several surrounding villages were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Above in the background. The saddle-shaped mountain used to be cone shaped) 46 years after Jesus' resurrection. I wonder if the good news ever made it to this place?

So this is my dilemma. If I tell a truthful story about life in Pompeii, it would be very difficult to keep it a clean read. Honesty would force me to address the effects of living in a wicked, decadent society, despite how virtuous I may want to make my hero/ heroin. I would be walking a tightrope between over-sweetening history and wallowing in the sticky, smelly mud.

But then there are those surrounding villages. . . Herculaneum has all the beauty and plenty of pathos. . .It was a fishing village. There was this buff Roman soldier, well-dressed, down by the boat docks with his pouch stuffed with gold. . . found flat on his face as though knocked over by the gust of super-heated ash unexpectedly. There's a story there, too.



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