John Martin’s Destruction of Pompeii, 1822
It was August 79AD in a resort town called Herculaneum sitting on the left side of the Italian boot’s ankle (about 143 miles south of Rome –– that’s about a week’s journey by horse).
Bacchus with Agathodaemon and Vesuvius from the House of the Centenary, 2nd century BC
The town had been created in the shadow of the ancient volcano Vesuvius; a volcano that had been dormant for 800 years –– so long that the inhabitants of surrounding towns no longer considered it dangerous. Rather, it was thought of as generously benign since it was covered in lush and fertile soil –– a handsome detail in the landscape until the summer of 79.
The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Brullov, (1830-33)
The myth has always been that the city was taken unawares by the cataclysm. New evidence suggests this is not the case at least in Herculaneum – there were warnings. Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) who witnessed the disaster from across the Bay of Naples, reported that earthquakes had shaken the area with considerable force before the volcano erupted, causing many to flee. Many in Pompeii didn’t heed the warning earthquakes and doubled down on sacrifices to angry gods. The gods did not listen – they never do.
I.C. Dahl, Vesuvius (1826)
Contemporary accounts of the event described a pillar of ash that flew straight up into the sky, rising to 20 miles high. When it hit the tropopause, Pliny the Younger told the historian Tacitus that the pillar’s top then spread out creating a stone pine tree shape at which point it lost cohesion and it began to rain debris and dust.
Some people escaped leaving their valuables behind, probably imagining they could return after the storm had passed. Tragically, others stayed too long with their valuables or thought they could pinch a few juicy items on their way out of town – big mistake.
The Moregine Silver Treasure – some of the cups would have been antique in 79AD
A hoard of silver, later known as the Morefine Treasure, was found in Herculaneum in a basket stashed in a public bath, perhaps stolen from vacant mansions by a foolish lingerer. The rich hoard did him no good, his roasted bones were found beside his treasure.
Some trusting inhabitants remained in Herculaneum only to be incinerated in the middle of baking bread or plastering a wall but many did get away with their treasures. There weren’t as many bodies as there were in Pompeii. Aside from the warning earthquake, the other reason for this is what fell on the two cities and when.
Vesuvius from Portici, Joseph Wright of Derby (1774-6)
Wooden screen (behind protective glass)
Even delicate screens have survived in the airless world for nearly 2000 years. Unfortunately opening it up has started the disintegration clock ticking again.
Let's not forget color. Rome loved color, especially those heavenly reds. Sometimes spare and elegant, other times lush and richly figured. Art was everywhere even in middle-class houses.
Even marble statues were gently colored making them far more human and less cold than we imagined.
The streets were not drab either.
Artist’s rendering of ancient Roman city, Pompeii De Agostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence
Herculaneum was a prosperous Roman resort town with businesses and private houses on pleasant main streets that had covered sidewalks (without carts or wagons allowed—perhaps to keep animal waste to a minimum?).
Herculaneum bath, Deposit photo
There was a public water system with aqueducts from the mountains for fountains, drinking and baths that were taken daily at public bathhouses.
Public fountain encouraging hair washing!
There was even a sewer system so that streets did not flow with human waste as they did in Pompeii (although the Romans did wash their clothes with fermented urine/ammonia that was collected and taxed!).
Closeup of the Neptune and Amphitrite mosaic
The most famous dining room of Herculaneum, the dining room of Neptune and Amphitrite is missing many pieces of sculpture and reliefs that had originally been there because it was one of the first areas to be excavated in the 18th century and was plundered under orders of the King of Naples. You can only imagine how splendid it must have been when it was new.
Dining was done pretty much lying down. Romans did not sit at a table to eat, some people sort of half-sit on one arm, or are prone leaning on one arm or lie on their stomachs, propped up on both arms on giant pillows. I would imagine it would get terribly uncomfortable in a short time.
Still Life of bread and figs from Pompeii
Carbonized loaf from Herculaneum
There were classes of bread. The rich ate ’white’ bread without much bran that was ground twice and well sifted, the poorer classes ate pane puero and pane cibarium that was full of bran but hard on the teeth. Inhabitants had bad teeth not just from crunching the bran but also from bits of the millstone that had broken off into the flour. It was not sifted as well as the rich folks bread flour would have been. The same was true in England up through the 19th century. Only now is whole wheat really better for you and not dangerous to eat!
Bread stall in Pompeii
Still Life of peaches from Pompeii
Using a new technique of collagen testing on bones of the citizens, it has been discovered that the people, rich and poor, were nearly complete vegetarians or vegetarian/fish eaters – it seems very little meat was eaten (at least by the people who got stuck in Herculaneum – perhaps the meat eaters escaped?
Painting from Pompeii, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, (Naples), showing a banquetSo, what might a sophisticated Roman in a resort town filled with a lavish array of produce, fish and avian delights want to share at their dinners? I went to Apicius (I’ve written about it HERE) to get a dish that would invoke the spirit of Herculaneum even though the recipes were written long after its destruction (it is believed Apicius was written over generations beginning around the 4th century AD). Something about partridge and berries sounded awfully good (especially when the partridge is D'Artagnan's Wild Scottish Red Partridge). I wish I could get myrtle berries but read that they taste of juniper and rosemary with a bit of pine so I thought I would add a bit of that to the mix. The sauce is just beautiful -- seriously beautiful. The gentle hint of Aftelier's pine essence gives a lyrical quality to the berries that I found magical.
WAYS TO PREPARE PARTRIDGE, HEATH-COCK OR WOODCOCK, AND BOILED TURTLE-DOVE IN PERDICE ET ATTAGENA ET IN TURTURE ELIXIS
 (in perdice is Latin for partridge)
PEPPER, LOVAGE, CELERY SEED, MINT, MYRTLE BERRIES, ALSO RAISINS, HONEY  WINE, VINEGAR, BROTH, AND OIL. USE IT COLD  THE PARTRIDGE IS SCALDED WITH ITS FEATHERS, AND WHILE WET THE FEATHERS ARE TAKEN OFF; [the hair singed] IT IS THEN COOKED IN ITS OWN JUICE [braised] AND WHEN DONE WILL NOT BE HARD IF CARE IS TAKEN [to baste it]. SHOULD IT REMAIN HARD [if it is old] YOU MUST CONTINUE TO COOK IT UNTIL IT IS TENDER
Partridge with Berry Sauce from Apicius, serves 2
1 D'Artagnan Wild Scottish Partridge, cut into 3 pieces, bones removed from breast (reserve the back for stock)
1 T olive oil
1 T hazelnut oil
1/4 c stock (best if you can make game bird stock but chicken will do well)
2 T white wine vinegar
2 T White Wine
1 T heather honey
2 T raisins
1/4 t pepper
1/8 t celery seed
1 drop Aftelier juniper essence, or 3 crushed juniper berries
1 sprig rosemary
1 drop Aftelier pine needle essence
1/2 pint blueberries
Mint (a small sprig chopped with the top reserved for garnish)
Lovage or celery leaves (lovage tastes like celery on steroids- chop a tiny bit and use some for garnish)
Brine the partridge for an hour or so. Remove from the brine and dry and then sauté in the oils, gently cook till medium (about the time the bird is softly browned). Remove and tent, reserving the cooking juices.
Heat the stock, wine, vinegar, heather and honey with raisins and spices and the pine for a few minutes. Add the blueberries and cook gently for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to come to room temperature. Pour the reserved juices into the mix. If you are lucky enough to have myrtle berries, skip the rosemary, pine and juniper since the berries have those flavors naturally. I have never worked with them so if they are not juicy enough, add additional liquids.
1 c water
1 bay leaf
2 smashed juniper berries
1 T salt
1 T sugar
Heat the ingredients for a few minutes in the water and then allow to cool.
I will be off for the next month on making vintage murders. Back in October!