We’re off to see the Forum along the Via dell’Abbondanza that great artery than runs through the city from east to west. Then, as now, the Forum is a large open rectangular area – the heart of the city, a market place and also where religious and civic functions took place. At the northern end once stood the Temple of Jupiter and behind the ruins, looking surprisingly near, shouldering into the cloudless azure sky, is the hulking presence of Vesuvius.
Three massive blocks of stone, not stepping stones these, ensure the Forum is a pedestrian precinct: this far can the vehicular traffic come and no further. Turning must have been a nightmare as there is no turning circle. And if another cart was beside you, and another twenty behind, what did you do? Traffic jams: yet another idea we got from the Romans. I can imagine them all, shouting and gesticulating, telling the cart driver how to manoeuvre, like Enrico with his bus. It makes me wonder if they had rules of the road then, or did they just do what they pleased, like the Italian drivers of today? Perhaps we should understand that that was how it was then and that is why it is as it is today. Plus ça change and all that.
In one of the market places off to the right of the Forum are some faded frescoes but more interesting and grim, enshrined in two glass cases, two victims of the eruption have been put on display. The first of these, we are told, is a boy of about 15. The expression on his face is one of agony as he gasped his last breath. In his contorted posture, it is a reminder of how awful it must have been that day, how great the panic, how desperate the struggle to flee, to take to the ships, to escape what must have seemed to them, the wrath of the gods. From his extended hand, I can see the bones of his fingers emerging from the grey plaster: for this is how he has been resurrected. He lay covered in ash for eighteen hundred years until the first archaeologists poured plaster into the cavity created by the decomposed flesh and thus preserved him forever for us to gawk at.
It reminds me of a similar idea I saw a number of years ago in the Dordogne. A dead pig had been immersed in running water and slowly the corpse was being calcified due to the heavy concentration of limestone in the water. I thought then and still think now, what a wonderful way to dispose of a corpse! I’d like that: I could be put out in the garden as an ornament – think of the variety of artistic poses I could be twisted into once rigor mortis had worn off. Or instead of an artistic use, I could be something practical, like a hat or umbrella stand. Or think of the fun the grandchildren could have playing hoopla with Grumpa!
Next stop are the baths or thermae. We are going to the Stabian baths, the oldest in Pompeii, dating from the 4th or 5th century BC. I am already familiar with the principle behind Roman baths, having been to Bath and many other Roman baths besides, though as expected, these are in a much better state of preservation.
First there is the apodyterium or dressing room, but it should really be the undressing room. Here you can see the holes in the walls where once were the shelves where the patrons placed their clothes and belongings. Next is the tepidarium (work it out for yourself) then the calidarium (hot room, remember) containing the alveus or hot tub and the laconicum or steam bath, what we call a sauna. The whole system is operated by a hypocaust, an ingenious underfloor heating system (another idea we nicked from the Romans).
There are men’s and women’s sections: none of your mixed bathing here and no funny business either. It is a common misconception that Roman baths were scenes of debauchery and depravity. That only happened in the latter days of the Empire and Pompeii never survived to see that.
The baths are swarming with people, and bizarrely, two hot dogs, their sides heaving rhythmically in deep slumber with their tongues lolling out, their method of sweating. It beats me why they should choose this location for a nap amongst the constant tramp of feet just centimetres from their ears, not to mention the Babel’s Tower of guides’ voices. If anything, it shows just how dog-tired they must be. A bit like me actually. Like the hitchhiker said in The Grapes of Wrath, “My dogs are pooped out.” Like him, I’m footsore and if I were a dog, my tongue would be hanging out too as it’s as hot as Hades in here.
It is quite hard to hear Marco amongst all this mêlée, so it’s as well that this is the area of Roman architecture I need to learn least about. However, the one thing I do learn, which intrigues me, is that the roof in the calidarium is grooved, like a Nissen hut in the Second World War which allows the condensation to run down the channels instead of dripping onto the patrons below. These Romans seem to have thought of everything.
The Stabian baths are near the brothels (so you are nice and clean – apparently already aware of sexually transmitted diseases) and that’s where we are off to next, via the House of the Vettii.
We can’t get in there today as it is under restoration, but Marco takes us up a side street so we can peer through an iron-grilled window at a famous pornographic fresco. It looks like a grocer weighing a leek and a couple of onions but in fact, it is Priapus casually weighing his phallus, as you do. It is poking out obscenely from beneath his tunic and reaches his knees. He’s not looking too happy so I presume it’s lost a bit of weight.
Actually, I think he should be more cheerful. I don’t know what effect his weapon of mass reproduction had on the horses, unless it was to make them jealous, but I bet it frightened the ladies to death. A ding-a-ling like that don’t mean a thing even if it could swing like a scythe at a sickle party. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the reason for his glum expression is that he has realised, through experience, that like Enrico’s bus, size isn’t everything – a curse even.
Marco wants to know what Iona thinks of it. She gives it a brief glance and him short shrift.
Marco seems disappointed and says that it is only recently that women have been allowed to see this fresco and others of an erotic content, implying Iona is very lucky indeed. If he had hoped she would find it arousing, he’s sadly mistaken. And looking round the rest of the women in our party, I can’t imagine any of them rushing back to the hotel in a fever of sexual arousal either. Unless the blonde one…but not because of the fresco. Perhaps that’s why she was late down for breakfast.
Modest, Priapus is not, but next stop for us is Modestum’s bakery. You can see the holes where the shafts of wood were threaded through the grindstones to be turned by the slaves, poor devils. The oven is still here too. In fact, the whole place must have been like an oven when you take into account the baking temperature outside.
Amazingly, archaeologists found 81 carbonised loaves here. Marco shows us a picture of one in the book which Iona has bought. It is divided into segments like a sponge cake and I must admit that although it looks a trifle well-fired, I like the look of it a whole lot better than the loaves Iona bakes in her bread machine. We are on our third one now and I think currently, a loaf is working out at something like £27:10.
Anyway, man cannot live by bread alone, and we’re on our way to the lupanar or brothel – at long last.