Before working in the City, I had intended to be a historian and so I was excited to visit Pompeii.
I had taken the overnight ferry from Durres to Bari and after negotiating tight immigration and customs, which at one point seemed would involve dismantling my car, I drove the width of Italy over the Campanian Appenines and arrived in Pompei in the middle of a thunderstorm.
The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”, which appears in a mosaic of a reclining skeleton found in a Pompeiian villa and was famously inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, could be the historian’s motto.
History provides an opportunity to realise our connectedness and the historian’s challenge is essentially one of empathy. So we attempt to understand and share another person’s experiences and motivations, even in the most difficult and distant of circumstances, which of course is the same as knowing yourself. Explaining this challenge, Eric Hobsbawm compared the past to a foreign country and a large part of my enthusiasm for travel is the wonderful opportunity it offers for self-knowledge through encounters with other cultures and people.
The broken top of Vesuvius is clearly visible from most of Pompeii. Before the eruption in 79AD which buried the town under five meters of killing and preserving ash, the volcano showed significant seismic activity. So the inhabitants were aware of the danger, but chose to continue living there anyway, perhaps similarly to accepting earthquake risk in San Francisco or Tokyo.
The ruins cover a vast area and they were challenging to photograph in mostly flat midday light. I was pleased to find a dog sleeping in the amphitheatre which, from a low angle, enabled a photographic joke. I found this building and the grand theatre, shops and bathhouses to be the most evocative, giving a sense of a prosperous, thriving town, with significant leisure time.