• Professor Mary Beard with the cast of a fallen Pompeian. (BBC)Source: BBC
Looking at Rome in 79 AD is more or less like looking in a mirror.
Jim Mitchell

16 Mar 2017 - 5:36 PM  UPDATED 16 Mar 2017 - 5:36 PM

Pompeii was buried under ash and lava when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Almost 2000 years later, TV's favourite professor Mary Beard has used state-of-the-art forensic technology in the SBS On Demand documentary Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard to describe life there in unprecedented detail.

Here's what we learnt...


Being a kid wasn’t much fun

Life for Pompeii children was difficult because of the many illnesses that we now can vaccinate against. Only half of the population would live until 10 and the mark of their infectious diseases was left in the enamel of their teeth.

Intriguingly, signs of congenital syphilis were found in the skeletal remains of a pair of twins suggesting that the disease wasn’t transmitted to Europe by Christopher Columbus and his crew in the 15th century as had been thought.


Sporting hooliganism was rife 

The sports-mad fanatic is part of Australian culture and would be right at home in the ancient amphitheatre  of Pompeii. In a famous example of hooliganism, riots broke out in 59 AD between Pompeians and visitors from neighbouring Nuceria - essentially a clash between home and away supporters. As a result, the city copped a 10-year ban on gladiatorial games.


Sex was on everyone's mind - and walls

On a wall in a bath house in Pompeii is the Roman equivalent of the Kama Sutra, painted right there for your instruction. There’s all sorts of mind-bending contortions going on here. If Pompeii wasn’t a sex-mad society, it was in desperate need of some satisfaction.


Society was literally phalocentric

On that point, Pompeians had a major thing for willies. Sculptured phalluses are everywhere about town. Some theorise that these were penis signage pointing to the nearest brothel, but the pragmatic Beard believes they were simply symbols of a very masculine society.

One artifact is particularly quaint. It’s essentially a lamp but inside is a bronze hunchback pigmy with a huge member, in the process of cutting it off. Paging Dr Freud!


People ate relatively healthily - with the occasional giraffe leg as a special treat

It may sound disturbing but archeologists are really excited to be sifting through over 700 bags of ancient excrement preserved in the sewers of nearby Herculaneum. They will offer vital clues about the diet of the area.

Evidence shows that the wealthy and poor both had access to healthy food. Staples included olives, bread, eggs, cheese and a lovely sounding concoction known as garum, fermented fish sauce. On the more exotic side, giraffe’s leg was on the menu at some point.

It also pays to take care of your teeth. Evidence gleaned from the famous casts of fallen Pompeians suggests that dental hygiene was surprisingly good.


Fast food joints were popular then too

There were 150 of them in Pompeii alone. Fillet-O-Garum anyone? In truth, the food was healthy compared to what's on offer now. The fast food establishments catered for the lower classes. If you were rich you would eat at home.


Their obsession with graffiti is like ours with social media

You know the type of mundane details that litter social media... “I bought a TV today”, “Someone flipped me the bird while I was driving to work”, “I had a really effective bowel movement”. And the latter is exactly what the last person in a toilet in nearby Herculaneum wrote before the eruption. He was the doctor of the Emperor Titus and wanted the next occupant to know that “he had a good shit here".

Pompeian walls both inside and out were covered in graffiti from advertisements to declarations of unrequited love. One reads: “Successus the weaver’s in love with Iris and she doesn’t give a toss.”

Some historians have estimated that literacy was as low as 20 per cent in males but the ubiquity of the graffiti would suggest otherwise.


Natural disasters can be utterly, cruelly brutal

Astonishingly, an eyewitness account of the chaos occurring in Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted survived. It described the shrieks of men, women and infants, calling out for their parents, children, husbands and wives. Under the heavy veil of ash, they couldn’t see each other. They could only hear the anguished voices of their loved ones as they perished.


Watch Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed right here:

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