Apocalypse Past: Pompeii

by Apocalypse Womble

Last Days of Pompeii

It’s easy to think of Apocalypse as the stuff of science fiction, but for many women of the past it became a sudden and terrifying reality. The tragedy of Pompeii could not have seemed anything but apocalypse to the people running for their lives, cowering, suffocating, burning.

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. Heat vented into the surrounding area, and many would have died as they were struck by blasts of up to 250°C before the pyroclastic clouds covered the city and its inhabitants with ash. Pompeii is most famous for the haunting images of its people caught in the moment of their death, such as this mother and child (below). These are formed not of the bodies of Vesuvius’ victims themselves, but by plaster and resin injected into the air pockets left behind where their bodies used to be – lost to the ages. These echoes of the past have provided historians with a unique window into the events, and us with a poignant image of the true terror of Apocalypse.
But Pompeii is not known only for these haunting shadows of women and men. It is also known for its erotic art and graffiti, much of which was preserved in Pompeii’s centuries of silence, as it lay waiting to be rediscovered. The women of Pompeii were feisty. The body of a woman in expensive jewellery was found in a gladiator’s cell, and one piece of graffiti reads: ‘Celadus the Thraex makes the girls moan’ (I know nothing of Latin, Wikipedia has two different translations of this, but I like the one I found here). Of course, Celadus (a gladiator) was probably boasting, and we’ll never truly know why the Roman woman was in a gladiator’s cell, but it is known that some high-class ladies fell to the thrill of a gladiator’s embrace. Juvenal, a Latin poet, satirises this in the tale of Eppia, a senator’s wife, who ran off with a gladiator named Sergius.

‘Celadus the Thraex makes the girls moan’

It’s an image of a city alive and vibrant in its moment of destruction. A word of warning and caution for us all, but also a spur: life is short, civilisations come and go – some slow, some so fast that the after-image of their fall is burned into history. Carpe Diem – seize the day. When I first read Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, it seemed but another male attempt to persuade a girl out of her knickers with no regard to the consequences that might follow for her once he was gone, but if we divorce it from its gendered slant it has a message for us all:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime…

        But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity…

Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Death is coming for us all – is that not part of the haunting romance of the Apocalypse? – so here’s to Celadus the Thraex and the nameless Roman woman in the gladiator’s cell. I don’t know how they really spent their last moments on planet Earth, but I like to think it was like this:

Polyphemus and Galatea kissing, a Fresco from Pompeii

 – Apocalypse Womble out.

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