On Tuesday afternoon, I sat with a few dozen other interested souls to listen to an hour-long discourse that ranged from municipal water systems, graffiti, commercial real estate and a little dabbling in political endorsements. It was kind of like a chamber of commerce meeting, except that I was at a lecture on the 2000-year-old city of Pompeii, delivered at Wesleyan by Classics Professor Chris Parslow.
Chris – who noted to me that he was already in the Eye this week -- was speaking at Wesleyan as the guest presenter at the 1,393rd meeting of the Connecticut Academy of the Arts and Sciences. The Academy, which was founded in 1799 and is the third oldest Learned Society in North America, meets occasionally for edifying presentations on various academic subjects, and membership is open by nomination, as noted here. I attended the lecture with my two teenagers, as guests of Peter Frenzel, the group’s Vice President.
Pompeii is the Roman city that was covered by pumice stone and ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in the year AD 79. The well-preserved site – near present-day Naples, Italy -- has been a boon to students of Roman history.
Chris spoke at the Usdan Center, offering slides from his 20-year experience in archeology in Pompeii. The main focus of his presentation was a particular building called the Praedia, which seems to have been a sort of mixed-use complex, including some commercial spaces, apartments, public dining area and Roman Baths. According to Chris, the Praedia had that magic real estate ingredient called “location”, since it was adjacent to a major tourist attraction, the amphitheater and adjacent campus.
One of the more charming images shown during the lecture was a photograph of a “For Rent” notice that was painted on a wall shortly before the city was destroyed.
If you don’t happen to read Latin, I’ll translate for you. Roughly speaking, these Roman Baths are seeking new management, and are available for rent along with assorted apartments and shop spaces (with room for the storekeeper to live upstairs) – it’s all very New Urbanist. Alas, a few days after the facilities became available for rent, the whole city was buried under 5 metres of volcanic ash. Kind of makes our current economic woes pale by comparison.
Chris gave a great presentation about the technological innovations of the Baths, such as their technique of raising the floor and floating the heat under and through the walls. The entire complex, including several hot and cold tubs which the Romans visited in sequence, used about 75,000 litres of water. Yet some areas seemed to only be designed for a few users at a time – quite cozy. Chris mentioned that the Romans would sometimes imbed a mosaic of slippers into the floor, which served as a graphic reminder to guests to be sure and cover their feet so they wouldn’t get burned on the hot tiles.
I would have liked to hear more about Chris’ tantalizing mention of 135 pieces of graffiti that he knows of in old Pompeii – as Middletown Eye readers know, it is one of my favorite subjects. How did the Ancient Pompeians feel about graffiti? Any special cleaning tips? In those days, was graffiti a crime or just enthusiastic decoration?
Guess I’ll have to wait to get the details until Chris publishes his upcoming book on Pompeii.