The Last Days of Pompeii: the day the sky fell in the City of Sin and Decline

The ‘parental guidance’ sign is small, discreet and in the unlikeliest of venues — not the foyer of a cinema, or a shop selling CDs by foul-mouthed rappers, but in the august splendour of the British Museum.

It’s next to a marble statue of a couple making love. Awkward enough to explain to young visitors, you might think.

But that’s only the half of it.

Closer inspection of this artwork reveals a human-like male in sexual congress with what is indisputably a nanny goat.

Horror: A family frozen in their death throes

Poignant: The blackened cradle where a baby’s bones were discovered in Herculaneum

This statue of the god Pan and his disturbing choice of paramour is part of a major new exhibition about ancient Pompeii. The X-rating of one of its treasures is just one of the striking things about this show.

Featuring 450 exhibits, many never before seen outside Italy, it paints the most vivid and complete picture yet of life and death in this doomed city.

While there is much to fascinate visitors of all ages, it does not flinch from revealing the extraordinary hedonism and sexual liberation of a society wiped out by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Neither does it stint from the full horror of its citizens’ suffering.

Their story has been told many times before, but many of the exhibits will give visitors an unforgettable and graphic new insight into a catastrophe of a kind seldom seen before or since.

A Favourite Custom” by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema OM RA, 1836-1912

They include charred baby’s bones found in a blackened cradle in the nearby city of Herculaneum, which was also destroyed by the eruption.

Like so many other unfortunates on that terrible day, its tiny occupant did not stand a chance of survival as the volcano, long presumed to have been dormant, suddenly blasted a vast cloud of ash and volcanic rocks into the sky.

There was widespread panic and terror as it rose 19 miles into the air, reaching into the stratosphere and blotting out the midday sun as it turned day into night.

Frozen in time: A painting of a baker and his wife from Pompeii

Victim: A cast of the Muleteer. This victim was discovered near a skeleton of a mule under a porticoe of the Palaestra

Preserved: A loaf of bread from Pompeii is part of the exhibition

Sex and the satyr: A statue of the god Pan with a nanny goat

The writer Pliny the Younger described ‘the shrieks of women, the screams of children and the shouts of men; convinced that there were now no gods at all and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world’.

Many early victims were killed as this deadly cloud began raining pumice and ash over Pompeii and the surrounding countryside. Some were hit by lithics — pieces of volcanic rock up to a foot across and hurtled to earth at more than a hundred miles an hour.

‘Featuring 450 exhibits, many never before seen outside Italy, it paints the most vivid and complete picture yet of life and death in this doomed city.’

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Chronicling of Decadence

Others were trapped, crushed and suffocated as their homes crumbled under the weight of volcanic debris. But Vesuvius had not finished with the terrified populace.

Most victims were killed in the second stage of the eruption, as the volcanic cloud destabilised and crashed to earth, propelling fast-moving avalanches of superheated ash and gas along the ground.

Its victims were slammed to the ground by these surges, which instantly ignited their clothing and burnt their bodies, often to the bone.

Effectively incinerated, they would not have survived long enough even to take a breath.

In some cases the heat was so intense that skulls split open under the pressure of brains boiling and expanding inside.

Frozen in time: Bust said to be of Alexander the Great, who ruled hundreds of years before Pompeii was encased in ash, will form part of the exhibition


Artifacts: A pair of windchimes found in Pompeii are going on display at the British Museum

Relics: A statue of Hercules (left) and a Satyr (right) are part of the ‘Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’

Undamaged: A fresco showing Venus and Cupid was found in the ruins of Pompeii

The exhibition depicts the terrible fate of one family of four who sought refuge in the arch under a staircase in their house in Pompeii.

The golden bracelet worn by the lady of the house — a stunning piece of jewellery weighing 21 oz — suggests they were very wealthy. But this counted for nothing in the face of Vesuvius’s wrath.

We can tell exactly how they died from plaster casts taken from voids left in the hardened ash as their bodies rotted away.

One young child struggles up from its mother’s lap; another lies nearby.

Aged four or five years old, he or she has remarkably well-preserved facial features. It is one of the most moving casts in the exhibition.

‘The exhibition does not flinch from revealing the extraordinary hedonism and sexual liberation of a society wiped out by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.’

Another exhibit reveals the agony of a guard dog left behind by its owners in the atrium of another house. Twisting in agony, it tried to out-climb the ash fast filling its home, but was ultimately overwhelmed.

One young girl was cut down near the city’s eastern gates along with 14 others, perhaps her friends and relatives.

The jewellery found with her consisted almost entirely of Roman lucky charms, including a little statuette of the Goddess Fortuna and a silver crescent moon.

These baubles, and her faith in them, add much poignancy to her fate. But one in particular helps us understand much about the society wiped out by Vesuvius that day.

Hardly the kind of thing you would expect to find a young girl wearing these days, it consisted of a little silver phallus, an image seen throughout the Roman Empire and often in the unlikeliest of places.

Historic: These two statues show a pair of stags being attacked by a pack of dogs

Shocking: The cast of a woman who died in the basement of a villa in Oplontis

A cake-stand in the exhibition is supported by a figure sporting a particularly prominent example.

The phallic shape was commonly seen in the spouts of water fountains, wick-holders of oil lamps and the patterns of mosaic floors.

‘The Romans saw nothing shocking in this,’ says Paul Roberts, the exhibition’s curator.

‘The phallus was a protective sign thought to be a symbol of good luck. Phallic signs were set into exterior walls of shops and other businesses, and on street corners.’

The controversial statue of Pan and the goat was found in a villa that once belonged to Lucius Pontifex, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law.

It was prominently displayed in the garden to be admired by all those passing through, women and children included.

‘The Romans would not have been shocked by it at all,’ says Roberts. ‘They would have regarded it as a great joke.’

Their lack of inhibition is also apparent in a painting taken from the house of a wealthy auctioneer. It shows a couple who are apparently fresh from a bout of passion.

Just visible in the background is another figure: a pretty young woman in a light blue tunic — a slave girl, on hand to provide drinks, towels and whatever else her master and mistress demand as they make love right before her eyes.

Beautiful: An impressive piece of carved masonry that makes up part of the Pompeii exhibition which runs until September


Preview: A woman looks at a mosaic depicting a guard dog, left, while a statue of a naked man carrying a tray will be one of the exhibits

They are not indulging in some exhibitionist fantasy, but simply behaving as was customary for privileged Romans, according to Paul Roberts.

‘Slaves could be present at even the most intimate moments,’ he writes in a book accompanying the exhibition.

‘In effect, they were thought of as invisible, just a part of the fixtures and fittings making possible their masters’ pleasure.’

Some slaves were also, on occasion, participants rather than mere spectators.

‘Roman writers cite numerous examples of slaves satisfying, willingly or unwillingly, the sexual desires of their masters,’ says Roberts.

‘One piece of graffiti from Pompeii sums up the attitude that was, sadly, probably widespread: “Seize your slave girl whenever you want; it’s your right.” ’Paul Roberts, exhibition curator

‘One piece of graffiti from Pompeii sums up the attitude that was, sadly, probably widespread: “Seize your slave girl whenever you want; it’s your right.” ’

The girls ‘seized’ in this way had no choice but to comply. If they pleased their masters, the rewards could be great.

Jewellery found in one lodging house includes a bracelet in the form of a snake. Weighing a little over a pound and with diamonds for its eyes, it was inscribed with the words: ‘To my slave girl from her master.’

These girls might even win their freedom from slavery. But if they refused their masters’ demands, they could be sold to one of Pompeii’s brothels, where the women plying their trade were almost all slaves.

It’s estimated that there were as many as 35 of these establishments in Pompeii, an astonishing number given its population was only 15,000.

Assuming that half the city’s residents were women, that works out at a brothel for every 200 men.

One exhibit is the carbonised remains of a meal that the residents of one of these brothels had prepared before beginning their working day.

Detailed: An intricate carving showing followers of Bacchus

They had no shortage of customers. In Roman times, it was acceptable for men of all classes to sleep with prostitutes and these women commanded surprisingly little for their services.

A piece of graffiti outlines what the various girls in the neighbourhood charged in the Roman currency of ‘asses’.

One woman named Acria sold herself for four asses, the price of a decent glass of wine. As for Prima Domina, meaning First Lady, she could, contrary to her name, demand only one-and-a-half asses.

These women would have found it hard to get by, even when trade was at its briskest, around the time of big events such as gladiatorial games.

Twenty years before the eruption, one of these gruesome spectacles had resulted in what historian Mary Beard has described as ‘a nasty outbreak of ancient sports hooliganism’, when spectators from the nearby town of Nuceria came to blows with the home crowd, resulting in many deaths.

As a result, the games were banned for ten years. But they proved as popular as ever when they were reinstated.

And the images, names and exploits of different gladiatorial heroes are recorded in graffiti all over the city, along with posters detailing who will fight, the names of their owners and the dates.

A more worrying poster announces that at Cumae, to the north-west of Pompeii, there will be ‘crucifixions and hunts’, along with awnings.

Stunning: Frescoes on display in a garden room of the British Museum

These huge tents sheltered audiences from the heat beating down on the unfortunates living out their last agonising moments on the crosses before them.

Such events were hugely popular and some sort of spectacle may well have taken place shortly before the eruption.

In a tavern run by a man named Lucius Placidus, archaeologists discovered a shrine devoted to Mercury and Bacchus, the gods of commerce and wine.

Apparently, they had been shining favourably on Placidus, because in his till — a deep recess in the marble counter — they found coins worth 700 sesterces.

It was a small fortune: enough for him to have treated himself to a mule and a dozen new tunics.

Paintings on the wall of another drinking den show two customers squabbling over a glass of wine held by the barmaid, and the landlord later giving them their marching orders.

‘Right you two, outside if you want to fight,’ he appears to be saying.

It is this sense of Pompeiians being ordinary people — with the same lusts, indulgences and sense of humour as those living nearly 2,000 years later — that is one of the most  haunting themes of the new exhibition.

Above all, it reminds us that, while we may remember the victims of Vesuvius for the way they died, they were every bit as fascinating for the way they lived.