Pompeii Live: they didn’t see catastrophe coming – and neither did we

In AD 79, a society that thought it was modern, sophisticated and fully in control of its destiny was taught otherwise by nature. Sounds familiar? The eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed Pompeii, Herculaneum and many villas dotted around the Bay of Naples caught the Roman empire by surprise. The parallels with the coronavirus crisis are uncanny. So the British Museum’s release this week of Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, an online tour of its harrowing 2013 blockbuster show, offers a troubling gaze into history’s mirror.

Like the Pompeiians before us, we have been caught unprepared. The people there were proud of their fertile and even divine mountain – until it erupted. Their bodies have been cast from cavities in the hardened ash, huddled against the volcano’s torrent of choking heat. Why did they not see this coming? Well, why didn’t we?

The exhibition, which you can revisit in this special screening of a filmed private view, brought together astonishing evidence of the wealth and comforts of Pompeii the moment before disaster. Frescoes and sculptures from bedrooms, dining rooms and even gardens revealed the style and splendour of wealthy homes in Pompeii. Cookware, heaters, couches and lamps from pubs, shops and baths enhance the image of a world engagingly similar to our own.

Anyone lucky enough to have walked the streets of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum today will have felt this. When you see the wonders of most ancient civilisations, from Egypt to the Aztecs, they are sublimely mysterious. Yet Pompeii by contrast is an everyday, knockabout town that seems familiar and recognisable. In so many ways, the Romans resembled us. They had mod cons like hot water and sewers. The difference is that instead of dishwashers they used slaves.

Love their Latin literature or loathe their slave mode of production, the Romans were our doubles. And like us, they ignored a blindingly obvious natural menace. The Bay of Naples was one of the poshest resorts in the empire. Caligula is said to have had a house near Herculaneum and one of the finest villas preserved along the coast belonged to Nero’s wife Poppaea. But the evidence of sinister geological activity is and was impossible to ignore. North of Naples is a vast underground supervolcano that vents itself in mysterious earth movements and noxious gases. The Romans noticed. They concluded that Lake Avernus, in a round crater in this fuming landscape, was the entrance to Hades.

Vesuvius, to the south, struck the inhabitants of Pompeii as more heavenly than hellish. It had not erupted in human memory. Instead of seeming dangerous, it was beneficial. Its ashy soil was good for growing vines. A painting found in Pompeii depicts the mountain covered with grape-bearing trees while the wine god Bacchus stands beside it bringing his boozy blessings. The mountain still produces a famous wine, Lacryma Christi.

And here is where the parallels between then and now, Pompeii and us, become all the more peculiar. People still live and work all around Vesuvius. A visit to Herculaneum, the town by the sea that was smothered in hot mud by Vesuvius, is genuinely disturbing. Down in the excavated area, you come face to face with the dead. Crowds fled to the harbour to try to escape as the volcano’s mushroom cloud hung over them. They are still here – tragic groups of skeletons and ghostly casts, cowering in death from a disaster they never had time to comprehend.

Yet only a small part of ancient Herculaneum has ever been excavated. Most of it is beneath the modern town of Ercolano, whose blocks of flats house nearly 54,000 people. How are they safer than the ancients were from the looming volcano? Sure, up on the summit of Vesuvius there are modern instruments analysing what’s below. But living on a volcano is as potentially dangerous today as it was 2,000 years ago.

Is that what we have all been doing? Have we been caught napping just like the people of Pompeii? So take a virtual trip to this ancient tragedy courtesy of the British Museum. Pity the dead. Admire their lost lifestyle. But don’t patronise these people from history, or think they were naive. Don’t think this is just a story of another time or a strange place. It turns out to be our own story. As the Roman poet Horace said: de te fabula narratur – of you the story is told.

The British Museum’s Pompeii Live launches Wednesday 20 May.