mosaic detail
Photo by chrisjohnbeckett used under a Creative Commons license.

Mary Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (Belknap Press, 2008).
Beard, a Cambridge professor, summarizes what historians and archeologists have learned about the Roman town of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Beard has the background to describe academic work authoritatively, but she also has the gifts to explain it lucidly to a wider audience — and to point out where conclusions have been drawn with little or no basis.  One myth debunked is that the eruption gave us a city frozen in time; it appears rather than most of the residents escaped, and that they took many of their possessions.  Also complicating interpretation are Roman salvage efforts, the crude archeology of earlier centuries, and Allied bombing during World War II.  Still, there is a wealth of material for Beard to relate. There are quite a few plates and illustrations, though still more would be nice. If you were to read one book about Pompeii, it is hard to imagine that this shouldn’t be the one.  (Note that it was published in England under the apter title, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town.)

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Beard, and here is her bio at Newnham College. Steve Coates (The New York Times) says it’s a wonderful book for the impressive depth of information and easygoing erudition. Marjorie Kehe (The Christian Science Monitor) says Beard restores Pompeii in all its bustling everydayness. David Walton (The Plain Dealer) calls it an excellent account of what the ruins can and cannot tell us. Judith Harris (California Literary Review) owns 130 books on Pompeii and would read this first. NS Gill’s quibbles. Jarrett A. Lobell (Archeology) says Beard conveys detailed information about life in the city. Beard takes the Page 99 Test. Herodotus calls it engagingly mischievous. Laure Paquette calls it an easy read. Amy particularly appreciated Beard’s skepticism. You can listen to Beard and Sasha Weiss talk about Roman humor in a NYRB podcast. Or watch her discuss her the book here and here. Beard blogs for the Times Online. Her fans are on Facebook.  update: The book won a Wolfson History Prize for 2008.

Buy it at Amazon.