Recommended reads on Pompeii
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
The best way to experience Pompeii is to visit the site. In all the research I did for my novel The Wolf Den, nothing compared to walking the streets of the ancient town, spending time in its infamous Lupanar, or gazing at the wealth of treasures stored at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.
But reading came a close second! For anyone who wants to explore Pompeii in print, the best book remains Mary Beard's Pompeii. My copy is falling apart, I read it so many times. Not only is it written in the most engaging style, hooking you from the first page, it is also stuffed with detail.
So much of Pompeii's impact is visual, which is why I would also recommend books with plenty of photos of the site, its buildings, frescoes and objects, all of which build a picture of daily life in the town. Joanna Berry's The Complete Pompeii is truly excellent for this, breaking the site down into thematic sections - such as women of Pompeii or baths and bathing.
I also loved Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts, which was printed to accompany a 2013 exhibition at the British Museum. Copies are available secondhand via Amazon. This takes you in detail through a Roman house and street, with masses of gorgeous photos and explanations to guide you.
Another book which helped me imagine the world Amara would have experienced in the 70s AD was Robert Knapp's Invisible Romans, especially his chapters on prostitution and slavery. The latter was fascinating for its attempt to rebuild 'the mind-world' of an enslaved person from their own internal perspective through the sources available. Bettany Hughes' Venus and Aphrodite includes a wonderfully atmospheric chapter on Pompeii as the city of the goddess of Love.
Pliny the Elder played a famous role in the evacuation attempts from the volcanic eruption in 79AD and I used him as a fictionalised character in The Wolf Den. Daisy Dunn's wonderfully engaging In the Shadow of Vesuvius proved invaluable, both in piecing together a sense of the real man and the Bay of Naples as it existed in his time.
In many ways, the best route into reimagining Pompeii or the Roman world in general is through Roman authors. Books I particularly drew on included Pliny's Natural History, Petronius's Satyricon and Ovid's The Art of Love. The Satyricon is often claimed to have been set in Pompeii (the action takes place in a town in Campania) and I riffed on a particularly famous chapter to create a lavish dinner party for Amara to attend, but you do need a strong stomach to read some of the book's sex scenes. The Roman's had wildly different attitudes to both rape and child abuse. The Art of Love has always fascinated me: Ovid is a witty, wicked writer and some of the attitudes about how to snare a lover seem to come straight out of contemporary - though not progressive - dating books.
For the most specialist reading you probably need to visit the British Library, or a university one, if you have access. Two academic books I found extremely useful were The Roman Street by Jeremy Hartnett and The Brothel of Pompeii by Sarah Levin-Richardson. The latter has a complete appendix of all the graffiti ever found in the Lupanar which was incredibly useful.
So, for anyone wanting to embark on their own time travel to Pompeii - happy reading!