This Easter, I went to Pompeii. Of course, it was incredible. It’s a freaking entire Roman city preserved under volcanic ash! It’s the closest we’ll ever get to being able to walk along a street from 79 AD. It’s an archaeological miracle. It’s beautiful. 

I felt lucky to be there. But the pleasure wasn’t without complication. Part of the fascination of the ancient world is the way it throws up difficult ideas and contradictions. 

It felt odd, for instance, when one of the first things that came to my mind, as I walked along Pompeii’s 2000-year-old paving stones, was how fortunate it was that Vesuvius had erupted in 79 AD and buried this lovely place for us. How lucky we were that the mountain had blown its top, throwing up so much smoke and debris that it blocked out the sun, leaving the people below screaming into the darkness as molten debris rained down from the sky. 

I saw casts of these victims.  One of the saddest was a dog https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/plaster-citizens-of-pompeiifrozen in its final agonised writhing. It’s on its back with its legs caught straining against the air, as if struggling to release itself from the collar and chain you can still see around its neck. Its mouth is open in an eternal silent howl, small teeth visible. 

There are also dozens, of casts of humans caught in various positions of pain, despair or futile hope. Hard not to tear up at the sight of a father, arms wrapped protectively around the daughter he couldn’t possibly save.

But in Pompeii, you can see just as much life as death. There’s the street art https://news.artnet.com/art-world/ancient-romans-of-pompeii-loved-street-art-too-195643, the statues https://www.pompeionline.net/pompeii/sculpture.htm, the beautiful houses arranged around courtyards and (this is Italy after all) the restaurants. There are dozens of little fast food joints called thermophili around the town. They have cosy looking street-facing counters with bowls set in them for the storage of dried foods and jars for water and wine. There are places for warming up hot food and space for seats. Given that Pompeii was a town famous for the manufacture of the Romans’ favourite fish sauce, I imagine you could get a decent meal there. It would be organic and locally sourced, too. A hell of a lot nicer than McDonalds.

Which brings me to the next big impression I had of Pompeii: Life there could be pretty good. The beautiful houses, the well paved streets, the running water, the paintings, the baths. Not bad at all. Those appealing thermophili were the places poor people ate, too. If you were one of the richer Romans, you’d have a huge staff of your own to cook for you…

Okay. Sorry. Not staff. Slaves. You’d have slaves. People who had no legal rights. Who could be beaten, bought, sold and raped at the whim of their masters. But then, these house slaves were also people who, in some ways, had it lucky. At least they weren’t among the luckless souls who were forced to work in mines. Or to fight for their lives in the amphitheatre, like some were, just a short walk from those tasty food shops. Or served up to wild beasts in there. 

In short, life in Pompeii could also be cruel. If we wanted to judge by modern standards – and we do, let’s face it, we moderns like nothing better than judging others – the Roman Empire was a nasty place. 

Since we’re being modern, the first thing to condemn is the very fact of empire. Rome was a society built on the plunder and rapine of subjugated nations. During their years of conquest, the Romans slaughtered millions of fighting men and innocent women. Julius Caesar, to give just one example was by his own plain admission, a mass murderer and mutilator. In his account of the Gallic war he cheerfully recounts cutting off the right hands of thousands of Gauls after the siege of Uxellodunum, and catalogues the murders of thousands of civilian men, not to mention all the soldiers he killed in battle.

It’s also worth remembering that Romans killed people the very old-fashioned way. They took them out them one at a time, face-to-face, mainly with swords and javelins. Often close enough to feel their last breath. Now and again they employed more elaborate cruelties like crucifixion, or having their prisoners crushed under the feet of elephants. If they wanted to publicly humiliate criminals in Rome, they chucked them off the Tarpeian Rock, a 25 metres-high cliff on the Capitoline Hill.  

But cruelty and justice are relative. Some Romans told themselves that their way was the best and greatest. Cato the Younger https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Younger was so convinced of his moral righteousness that he tore out his guts with his own hands, preferring suicide to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the end of the republican form of government. But not all were so certain about everything. Some disliked the slaughter in their circuses. Some even grumbled about their rulers’ genocidal practices. 

Meanwhile, Ancient Romans could easily ask why I was so worried about the fate of their criminals when our own society is also built on a bedrock of pain and suffering. They killed plenty of animals in their arenas. But we’ve wiped out entire species and barely given it a thought. At least they were up front. Similarly, while the Romans had slaves, we’ve built up an economic system that ensures 1% of the world’s population is worth more than the rest of the world combined. We ignore the fact that hidden millions live in abject poverty. The Romans slaughtered people in war – and so do we, only far faster, and sometimes sitting in control rooms thousands of miles away from the families we’re bombing. They threw people off the Tarpeian Rock, we hound them to death on social media. And while we do, we tell ourselves that we are the good ones. That we aren’t cruel. We can’t be. We’re the ones who worry about racism and gender in ways that no one in history ever has. We use the right pronouns. We’re the first ones to be right about everything, aren’t we? Our moral puritanism has to be better than that cruel man Cato’s. It has to be. Even if we can barely even admit that we’re destroying our own ecosystem. That we don’t even need a volcano. That we’re doing it to ourselves with hydrocarbons. I’d be fascinated to know how future generations will judge us for that globe melting cruelty. Assuming that there are any to pick through the ashes….