Why did I love this book?
No city of the Roman world survives more fully than Pompeii in southern Italy. Baths, bars, houses, and temples have been recovered, along with pots and pans, foodstuffs, medical instruments, and skeletons with evidence of an appallingly high rate of disease. For a knowledgeable and witty guide to the city you can’t beat Mary Beard, who helps us see it was not all marble columns and pretty paintings. I especially love her description of the House of the Tragic Poet, in which Edward Bulwer-Lytton set an early scene of his novel The Last Days of Pompeii, a dinner party hosted by the character Glaucus. Beard reveals that just behind this house was a cloth-processing workshop in which the main agent used would have been human urine. “In the background to Glaucus’ elegant dinner party,” writes Beard, “there must have been a distinctly nasty odor.”