The date the eruption which consumed Pompeii is normally given as 24th August, as this is the date that appears in the standard classical text of Pliny the Younger’s Letters. It is written down as nonum kalends Septembres – the ninth day before the first (kalends) of September – which, to the modern reader seems an awkward way of recording a date.
Several of the most unusual and interesting items in Escape from Pompeii are from the Museum of the Parco Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei housed in the Castle at Baia on the Bay of Naples. The Archaeological park covers the ancient sites of Cumae, Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) and Baiae which were a lot more famous to ancient Romans than Pompeii and Herculaneum. The sites are on northern side of the Bay as it stretches past Mount Vesuvius and Naples.
All three sites are situated in or around the Campi Flegrei, which translates as the fields of fire. The Campi Flegrei is one very large ground level volcano with gaseous fumeroles, boiling mud pools, and numerous smaller craters – about 24 of them – some of them flooded like Lake Avernus. The caldera of the volcano continues underwater into the Bay of Naples. If it were erupt it would be catastrophic.
One of the most amazing objects in Escape from Pompeii: The Untold Roman Rescue is a rostrum from a Roman warship. A rostrum is a bronze ram attached to the bow of an ancient warship. It was used to punch holes into the hull of enemy ships to disable or sink them. The Roman historian Livy gives a description of their use at the Battle of Side in 190 BC:
Whenever a ship encountered an enemy vessel head on, it either shattered its prow, or sheared off its oars; or else it sailed through the open space in the line and rammed it in the stern
The Roman artist who painted the beautiful wall fresco in the Villa of Livia could never have dreamt that 2,000 years later it would be reproduced at actual size and on display in an exhibition on the other side of the world.
In 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, sealing nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum into time capsules that would not be reopened for many centuries, and which have been incredibly rich historical and romantic resources for today’s world.
The eruption was clearly visible from the Roman navy’s major port-city of Misenum, along the coast at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. In response, the admiral of the fleet, Pliny the Elder, ordered his ships to go to the rescue. It is one of the first recorded attempted rescues of civilians by sea by a military force.
Casting and mould making are simultaneously the stuff of specialised artistic and scientific endeavours and the backbone of mass production. From fountain heads and amulets to the haunting plaster figures that are now synonymous with this ill-fated city, this month’s craft spot is inspired by the use of casting and moulds in ancient times to create the artefacts featured in our new exhibition Escape from Pompeii.