Today, we visit Pompeii. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
was only five one day when my parents took me off
to the Uptown Theater on Grand Avenue in St. Paul,
Minnesota. We went to see The Last Days of
Pompeii. Basil Rathbone played Pontius Pilate,
before he became typecast as Sherlock Holmes. The
primordial special effects in that early talking
picture raised the hair of this little boy.
Vesuvius erupting -- fire and lava consuming the
corrupt citizens on that terrible day of August 24,
in AD 79.
Pompeii is interesting precisely because it was
not flooded by lava. Rather, it was
covered over with volcanic ash and some mud. Just
as Spirit Lake was obliterated by ash and mudslides
when Mount St. Helens erupted, so too was this
model city of twenty thousand people. Two thousand
Romans died of asphyxiation and were entombed in
ashes until the city was rediscovered in 1748. The
nearby town of Herculaneum suffered far greater
material destruction. It was flooded by boiling
mud. Art and artifacts were destroyed. Its ruins
were encased in hard clay.
Scholars and artisans have
worked on Pompeii, restoring and rebuilding it. Now
you and I can walk the streets of a Roman city. And
there's a curious wrinkle here. A decade before the
eruption, a warning earthquake had laid Pompeii in
ruins. For ten years, its citizens had rebuilt
their city into a model of urban renewal. What we
find beneath the ashes is state-of-the-art,
first-century Roman construction along with a great
trove of fresh art -- all remarkably preserved.
This lovely city, so gracefully and beautifully
restored, has become cold news. During the 1960s,
people fixated on some erotic art that turned up in
a few of the buildings. Once I overcome the image
of flames washing over some Hollywood Babylon, up
on the silver screen of the Uptown Theater, I
realize that Pompeii is closer to our
reconstruction of Williamsburg, Virginia. That's
why I'm so taken with an old book I was recently
given. Called A Museum of Antiquity, it
was written in 1882, and it devotes over a hundred
pages to Pompeii. It takes us through houses of
real people with real names.
We visit the baker's shop, the wine merchant,
and fast-food diners along the streets. Mud had
solidified around some bodies, long since turned to
dust. They became clay casts from which a few
citizens and animals have been recreated in
plaster. Later scholars have corrected some details
in this old book, but that misses the point. For
Pompeii isn't so much about history as it is about
the continuity of life.
What we find here is no Babylon, no theater set of
an imagined past. It is, instead, the world you and
I live in, a world of upscale shops and theaters,
much like Grand Avenue in St. Paul today.
Pompeii was a town where ordinary and hardworking
people lived the good life until an unlikely
instant when they ceased to live at all. My Uptown
Theater no longer exists, but Pompeii
does. And, so too, does our own ongoing
hope as we work to build the good life in our towns
-- in Houston and St. Paul, in Norwalk and Durango.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Bulwer-Lytton, E. The last days of Pompeii.
New York: Heritage Press, 1957. (The original
publication date was 1835.)
The movie version I mention was: The Last Days
of Pompeii, RKO, 1935, starring Preston Foster
and Basil Rathbone.
Yaggy, L. W., and Haines, T. L., Museum of
antiquity: A description of ancient life. New
York: Standard Publishing House, 1882, pp, 117-112.
(I am grateful to Andrew Lienhard for this
wonderful old travelog of the ancient world.)
The old Uptown Theater lay on the north side of
Grand Ave. in St. Paul, between Lexington and
Oxford. It has long since been torn down and
replaced with another business. I mention this in
deference to Minneapolis listeners, who still have
an Uptown Theater of their own.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.