rcReview ~ Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano #ROMPEII

Back in June, I was one of a group of blogging types whom the Royal Ontario Museum graciously allowed to attend the media opening of their Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano exhibition (which, it should be noted, is NOT the same one that was at the British Museum a while back, although it has several of the same artifacts). Even better, they allowed — nay, encouraged — photography of the exhibition, a stark contrast with the Pointe-a-Calliere’s The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great (which I awkwardly live-tweeted without photos as guys in suits eyed my suspiciously).  This was another indication that the Royal Ontario Museum is leading the way when it comes to making good use of social media to promote exhibitions, and I happily Storified my photos from my live tweeting of the media preview. Even so, I’ve held off writing a formal review at the time in anticipation my wife and I celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary with a Grand tourish sort of thing which would include a number of museums in Italy and, of course, a trip to Pompeii. And so what follows is a review written with ‘the real Pompeii’ and related displays in Europe in mind.

The promotional material for the exhbition includes a sentence which defines the exhibition succinctly:

[…] Displayed in the ROM;s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, Pompeii features approximately 200 artifacts that tell the dramatic story of an ancient city captured in time. […]

As with all decent exhibitions (as opposed to the static displays on higher floors), the Pompeii exhibition at the ROM has a narrative and is trying almost to recreate the experience of being in Pompeii before, and in the wake of, that fateful August day. As such, it is useful to early on express our umbrage at two of the earliest reviews of the exhibit from two of Canada’s largest newspapers, neither of which/whom ‘gets it’.  Murray Whyte’s review for the Toronto Star opined, inter alia:

In an era where museums are desperate to reconfigure their relationship with viewers, this show is distinctly short on experience and long on information, and that’s the problem.

It does a sturdy job of unpacking Pompeii’s archeological significance: that its swift burial in the days after the eruption of Vesuvius made it a kind of vacuum-packed time capsule of everyday Roman life in the first century AD, and that its preservation is one of the keys to understanding what that life might have been like. […]

But it travels through an exhaustive, and exhausting, array of subsections, most of them cloyingly titled — “out on the town”; “open for business”; “better homes and villas” — that lard on information both useful and not. (The latter: an Onion-esque panel that assures you, “Romans used tables for the same things as we do.”)

In a similar journalistic passive-aggressive way, the Globe and Mail‘s James Adams concludes his (otherwise positive) review thusly:

In other words, Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano doesn’t lack the goods, be they exotic (a selection of copies of the famous plaster casts of the entombed victims) or everyday (pans, urns, furniture, lamps, coins, spoons). Where it does falter is in the presentation.

This has less to do with the show’s organization as a warren of compartments and departments (with titles such as “Better Homes and Villas” and “Out on the Town”) than its setting. As regular visitors to the ROM’s lower depths know, the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall can be an unforgiving space. Its vertiginous walls, linoleum-like floors, thrusting supports and angled intrusions are, more often than not, obstacles to be overcome (or at least ameliorated) rather than opportunities to be embraced.

I’m no fan of the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall at the best of times — it is basically a rabbit warren of a space with barely any right angles and with ceiling heights that drive many an average height person nuts. But what the above reviews don’t seem to get is that using this space is actually part of the narrative and works (I actually was chatting about this very thing with Dr. Jonathan Edmondson of York University, who was among the folks I chanced upon at the exhibition that day). The GWE Hall replicates very well the experience of wandering down the narrow streets of Pompeii itself. One expects things around the next corner, but is never sure what will be there; it actually adds to the experience of the exhibition.

To return to the ‘narrative’ aspect, however, I think the curators at the ROM have outdone themselves (following the aforementioned Storified tweets will help to understand much of the following description). The ‘tour’ begins with the usual quotes being projected on a wall and then there’s what I call the ‘touchy feely’ section. One can touch a bit of pumice from Pompeii, and then one gets one of the most famous pieces … the dog cast:


It’s probably the most famous piece to come out of Pompeii, of course, and if you go to the site of Pompeii itself, you can poke your nose/camera through an iron gate to see another cast of same that looks like this:


Whichever you prefer, the folks around you will generally go ‘awwwww … poor puppy’, especially when they see that he/she was likely tied up at the time of the eruption. I still remember one of my profs in a Class Civ class muttering how people seem to feel more about the puppy than the 1000+ humans who died in the event.  I’d like to think that the curation team at the ROM were well aware of the usual reaction to this piece and put it early on in the journey to  prevent it from hijacking the narrative later on.

Once you ‘go around a corner’, the real narrative begins. We first encounter plenty of statuary of people of various ages and positions; we are putting faces on the people who actually lived in Pompeii. We continue by wandering through various aspects of their lives at the time, with the expected nods to gladiators, theatre, and the like. We see images reflecting the  variety of religions which were current and occupations people worked and slaved at. Then the narrative grows a bit darker, and we’re reminded:


Many of these folks had probably lived through the earthquake a decade and a half before. There were warning signs …

There is more wandering though other things associated with Pompeii, and many which allow for connections outside the show itself. A prime example is the room which has the ‘adult’ material, which includes the famous Satyr and Goat piece:


… which thankfully (for teachers) is in a separate section so if you don’t want to look at such things (or can’t, because of the kiddies), you don’t have to. This is a practical contrast to the British Museum’s attitude to the piece, which probably limited the age of the audience and the usefulness of the exhibition for teachers. If you do go in, however, in addition to the expected brothel frescoes and penis lamps, one can ponder the ithyphallic Priapus and his possible penis disorder that was recently in the news.

Elsewhere, one can make comments on the recent restoration of the famous Cave Canem mosaic.  Torontonians might consider it timely to comment on this peacock fresco after the hijinks earlier in June:


But even without that, there is plenty to marvel at, whether it is the exceptionally fine mosaics (which startled me):


… or frescoes with subject matter which would endure through various painting styles:


… and on and on. I was impressed that the exhibit briefly mentions the controversy over the date of the eruption (did it happen in August?), but I would have liked a bit more on that score than this passing mention:


Whatever the case, one eventually winds through the GWEH rabbit warren and is met by this woman (from Herculaneum, not Pompeii … a reminder that Pompeii was not alone):


Proceeding down a short alley,  we are dragged back to realize the human toll, with another famous cast:


… which is definitely more dramatic than what you’d see at Pompeii itself:


… and suddenly you’re in a room with just casts. And it’s dead silent as the impact sets in on the audience, especially this piece, which includes some of the ‘new technique’ 3d casts which were in the news just as the exhibition opened:


… and this one, which looks an awful lot like a family just lounging in the backyard on a Canadian summer day:


And so the narrative ends and the human toll is definitely recognized and stressed.  I could contrast and editorialize about the (to me) bizarre casts display currently in a pyramid in the Pompeii amphitheatre, but that’s another story. Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is a stunning exhibition and certainly rivals going to Pompeii itself, which has had to deal with strikes and accessibility issues lately (I doubt they can do anything about the 40+ degree heat we had to deal with). It’s easily the best exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever,  and I’d strongly recommend that all Classics types in range of Toronto make a serious effort to see it before it departs for Montreal in January. School teachers can also make ancient Rome very real for their students (skip the one section, obviously) with this exhibition and a trip upstairs to the ROM’s generally excellent ancient Greek, Roman, and Egypt collections as well. Definitely worth it!!!

BMCR 2015.02.49 Soler on Grobéty​, Guerre de Troie

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.49

Gaël​ Grobéty​, Guerre de Troie, guerres des cultures et guerres du Golfe: les usages de l’Iliade dans la culture écrite américaine contemporaine. Echo, 11​. Bern; Frankfurt am Main; New York; Wien: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. xviii, 349. ISBN 9783034315111. $106.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthieu Soler, Université Toulouse II​

Les historiens de l’Antiquité et du cinéma s’intéressent de façon soutenue à la réception populaire des stéréotypes anciens.1 Dans ces études, des scientifiques comme P. Payen ou M. Winkler, abordent en particulier la question de la guerre, en partie à travers la geste troyenne ou encore les guerres médiques.2 La question se pose du rôle que peut jouer la section de grec ancien dans ce travail de réflexion sur nos modes de pensée. Gaël Grobéty présente les classicistes comme un groupe à part, confronté à un supposé « inconfort du présent » ; idée qu’il nuance de loin en loin. Lui-même ayant fréquenté les bancs de cette section à l’université de Lausanne tout en étudiant l’histoire de cinéma, il propose au lecteur une vision tout-à-fait intéressante de l’image que se construisent les Américains des textes homériques. […]

καὶ τὰ λοιπά:

BMCR 2015.02.49 on the BMCR blog (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2015/2015-02-49.html)

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/20/14


  • 2014.08.35:  Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, Taxing Freedom in Thessalian Manumission Inscriptions. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 361.
    2014.08.34:  Thomas F. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World.
    2014.08.33:  Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Herodotus: Volume 2, Herodotus and the World. Oxford readings in classical studies.
    2014.08.32:  Ilenia Achilli, Le ali di Clio. Massimo di Tiro e il pensiero storico classico. Biblioteca di Sileno, 5.
    2014.08.31:  Michele Alessandrelli, Il problema del λεκτόν nello stoicismo antico: origine e statuto di una nozione controversa. Lessico Intellettuale Europeo, 121
  • 2014.08.30:  Leonid Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans. (Translated from Russian by Kevin Windle and Rosh Ireland; first published 1994).


Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/18/14

The latest:

  • 2014.08.29:  Sten Ebbesen, John Marenbon, Paul Thom, Aristotle’s Categories in the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions. Scientia Danica: Series H, Humanistica 8, vol. 5.
  • 2014.08.28:  Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou, Greg Woolf, Ancient Libraries.
  • 2014.08.27:  Mika Kajava, Studies in Ancient Oracles and Divination. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 40.
  • 2014.08.26:  Angelos Chaniotis, Pierre Ducrey, Unveiling Emotions II. Emotions in Greece and Rome: Texts, Images, Material Culture. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien (HABES), Bd 55.

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/16/15

[catching up …. again}

  • 2014.08.25:  William Allan, Classical Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Very short introductions.
    2014.08.24:  Averil Cameron, Dialoguing in Late Antiquity. Hellenic studies, 65.
  • 2014.08.23:  Denise Demetriou, Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean: The Archaic and Classical Greek Multiethnic Emporia.
  • 2014.08.22:  Dimitri Kasprzyk, Christophe Vendries, Spectacles et désordre à Alexandrie: Dion de Pruse, Discours aux Alexandrins. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne.
  • 2014.08.21:  Emanuele Lelli, Quinto di Smirne. Il seguito dell’Iliade di Omero. Testo greco a fronte. Il pensiero occidentale. bmcr2
  • 2014.08.20:  Hélène Fragaki, Un édifice inachevé du quartier royal à Alexandrie. Etudes Alexandrines, 31.
    2014.08.19:  David Stacey, Gregory Doudna, Qumran Revisited: A Reassessment of the Archaeology of the Site and its Texts. BAR international series, 2520.
    2014.08.18:  Fernando Lozano Gómez, Un Dios entre los hombres: la adoración a los emperadores romanos en Grecia. Col·lecció Instrumenta, 37.
  • 2014.08.17:  Evan Hayes, Stephen Nimis, Galen: Three Treatises: ‘On My Own Books’, ‘On the Order of My Own Books’, and ‘That the Best Physician is Also a Philosopher’. An Intermediate Greek Reader.
  • 2014.08.16:  Stefan Feuser, Monopodia: figürliche Tischfüße aus Kleinasien. Ein Beitrag zum Ausstattungsluxus der römischen Kaiserzeit. Byzas, 17​.
  • 2014.08.15:  Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos, Ancient Greek Women in Film. Classical Presences.
  • 2014.08.14:  Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible.
    2014.08.13:  Johannes de Vries, Martin Karrer, Textual History and the Reception of Scripture in Early Christianity / Textgeschichte und Schriftrezeption im frühen Christentum. Society of Biblical Literature. Septuagint and cognate studies, 60​.
  • 2014.08.12:  Mario Labate, Gianpiero Rosati, La costruzione del mito augusteo. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, Band 141.
    2014.08.11:  C. D. Gordon, The Age of Attila: Fifth-Century Byzantium and the Barbarians. Revised edition, with a new introduction and notes by David S. Potter.
    2014.08.10:  Peter Fibiger Bang, Dariusz Kołodziejczyk, Universal Empire: A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation in Eurasian History.
    2014.08.09:  David Leeming, Medusa: In the Mirror of Time.
    2014.08.08:  Aaron M. Seider, Memory in Vergil’s Aeneid: Creating the Past.
    2014.08.07:  Jennifer M. Webb, David Frankel, Ambelikou Aletri. Metallurgy and Pottery Production in Middle Bronze Age Cyprus. Studies in Mediterranean archaeology, 138.
    2014.08.06:  John Godwin, Ovid: Metamorphoses III, An Extract: 511-733. Bloomsbury Latin texts. London; 2014.07.16:  Ken Dark, Ferudun Özgümüş​, Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998-2004.
    2014.07.17:  Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.
    2014.07.18:  Carl Nylander, Börje Blomé, Lars Karlsson, Angela Bizzarro, Giuseppe Tilia, Stefano Tilia and Alessandro Tilia, San Giovenale, vol. 5, fasc. 1: The Borgo. Excavating an Etruscan Quarter: Architecture and Stratigraphy. Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Rom, 4, 26:5,1.
    2014.07.19:  Claus Ambos, Lorenzo Verderame, Approaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures. Questioni di rito: rituali come fonte di conoscenza delle religione e delle concezioni del mondo nelle culture antiche. Proceedings of the conference, November 28-30, 2011, Roma. Rivista degli Studi Orientali, nuova serie, 86, supplemento no 2.
    2014.07.20:  Riccardo Massarelli, I testi etruschi su piombo. Biblioteca di studi etruschi, 53.
    2014.07.21:  Jürgen​ Leonhardt, Latin: Story of a World Language (First published 2009; translated by Kenneth Kronenberg).
    2014.07.22:  Timothy J. Moore, Wolfgang Polleichtner, Form und Bedeutung im lateinischen Drama/ Form and Meaning in Latin Drama. Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium, Band 95.
    2014.07.23:  Jeffrey C. Anderson, The Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes: Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, plut. 9.28. The Map of the Universe Redrawn in the Sixth Century. Folia picta: manoscritti miniati medievali, 3.
    2014.07.24:  Michel Sève, Patrick Weber, Guide du forum de Philippes. Sites et monuments, 18.
    2014.07.25:  Paul Cartledge, After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars. Emblems of Antiquity. 2014.07.26:  Danielle L. Kellogg, Marathon Fighters and Men of Maple: Ancient Acharnai.
    2014.07.27:  Andreas Heil, Die dramatische Zeit in Senecas Tragödien. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 357.
    2014.07.28:  Janet Burnett Grossman, Funerary Sculpture. The Athenian Agora, 35.
    2014.07.29:  Paul G. P. Meyboom, Eric M. Moormann, Le decorazioni dipinte e marmoree della domus aurea di Nerone a Roma (2 vols.). Babesch supplements, 20.
    2014.07.30:  Vanda Zajko, Ellen O’Gorman, Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self. Classical presences. 2014.07.31:  Lloyd P. Gerson, From Plato to Platonism. 2014.07.32:  Barbara M. Levick, Faustina I and II: Imperial Women of the Golden Age. Women in antiquity.
    2014.07.33:  Thomas Kjeller Johansen, The Powers of Aristotle’s Soul. Oxford Aristotle studies.
    2014.07.34:  Christian Orth, Alkaios–Apollophanes: Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Fragmenta Comica, Bd 9.1.
    2014.07.35:  Francesco Fronterotta, Eraclito: Frammenti.
    2014.07.36:  Carol C. Mattusch, Rediscovering the Ancient World on the Bay of Naples, 1710-1890. Studies in the history of art, 79.
    2014.07.37:  Gideon Nisbet, Greek Epigram in Reception: J. A. Symonds, Oscar Wilde, and the Invention of Desire, 1805-1929.
    2014.07.38:  Wilfred E. Major, The Court of Comedy: Aristophanes, Rhetoric, and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens.
    2014.07.39:  Olga Chernyakhovskaya, Sokrates bei Xenophon: Moral – Politik – Religion. Classica Monacensia, Bd 49.
    2014.07.40:  Richard F. Thomas, Jan M. Ziolkowski, The Virgil Encyclopedia (3 vols.).
    2014.07.41:  Raffaella Cribiore, Libanius the Sophist: Rhetoric, Reality, and Religion in the Fourth Century. Townsend lectures/Cornell studies in classical philology.
    2014.07.42:  Christopher P. Jones, Between Pagan and Christian.
    2014.07.43:  J. C. Rolfe, John T. Ramsey, Sallust, I: The War with Catiline; The War with Jugurtha (edited and revised; first published 1921). Loeb classical library, 116.
    2014.07.44:  Alberto Bernabé, Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Raquel Martín Hernández, Redefining Dionysos. MythosEikonPoiesis, Bd 5.
    2014.07.45:  Elizabeth Marlowe, Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in archaeology.
    2014.07.46:  Jordi Pàmias i Massana, Arnaud Zucker, Ératosthène de Cyrène. Catastérismes. Collection des universités de France. Série grecque, 497.


  • 2014.07.47:  Joshua Billings, Felix Budelmann, Fiona Macintosh, Choruses, Ancient and Modern.
    2014.07.48:  Noémie Villacèque, Spectateurs de paroles! Délibération démocratique et théâtre à Athènes à l’époque classique. Histoire. Série Histoire ancienne.
    2014.07.49:  Glenn W. Most, Alice D. Schreyer, Homer in Print: A Catalogue of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana at the University of Chicago Library.
    2014.07.50:  Michael Silk, Ingo Gildenhard, Rosemary Barrow, The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought.
    2014.07.51:  Cyprian Broodbank, The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World.
    2014.07.52:  Ingrid D. Rowland, From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.
  • 2014.07.53:  Joseph Geiger, Hellenism in the East: Studies on Greek Intellectuals in Palestine. Historia Einzelschriften 229.
  • 2014.08.02:  Angelika Schöne-Denkinger, Attisch rotfigurige und schwarzgefirnisste Peliken, Loutrophoren und Lebetes Gamikoi. Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum Deutschland, Bd. 95. Berlin, Antikensammlung ehemals Antiquarium, Bd 15.
    2014.08.03:  Alison E. Cooley, M. G. L. Cooley, Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Sourcebook. Second edition (first published 2004). Routledge sourcebooks for the ancient world.
    2014.08.04:  Alexander Kirichenko, Lehrreiche Trugbilder: Senecas Tragödien und die Rhetorik des Sehens. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften; 142.
    2014.08.05:  Jane Alison, Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid.