Preparing for Pompeii
Welcome to the first entry of the Pompeii-Rome immersion trip blog. The trip is the culmination of a semester-long study of Roman urban life, and my students and I await our departure with intense excitement. In this pre-trip entry, I want to fill you in on what we’ve been studying over the course of the term, and I’d like to grant a sense of what lies in store for the trip.
Let’s start with where things stand right now. I’m waist-deep in papers and final exams, and, though I’m doing my best to work away at them, the stacks don’t seem to be getting any smaller. This lack of progress can be traced, I think, to a pair of factors: my students’ eagerness and hard work. The guys have been pouring into my office in a steady stream; some have questions about what to pack (Q: “Will I look silly in Italy if I wear flip-flops?” A: “Yes.”), some are picking up their graded research papers (a sample topic: how does Rome’s agrarian heritage have an impact on Roman urban self-presentation?), some are dropping off their take-home final exams (a critique of a popular book about Herculaneum), and virtually all stick around for twenty minutes or half-an-hour to chat about the trip. This has left little time for grading, not that I’d really trade their palpable enthusiasm for more time. Moreover, student engagement with the material of our course is evident in their work, which has been of a consistently high level. Another reason my stack of papers isn’t shrinking is my desire to respond to the students’ work with the same commitment with which they approached it.
The trip is designed as the climax of our work throughout the semester. The course description reads, in part:
Scholars estimate that, at the height of the Roman empire, as much as 25% of the population around the Mediterranean lived in cities – a level not again reached until the Industrial Revolution. This course is dedicated to studying the phenomenon of Roman urbanism, particularly in Italy. Classics 212 will cover a number of issues related to Roman cities, from their principal monuments and layout, to their economy, sanitation, and social hierarchy. Readings, discussions, lectures, and papers will center on four principal case studies – Rome itself, Ostia (the port city of Rome), as well as Pompeii and Herculaneum (two cities buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79).
Well, looking back, I think we’ve done what we set out to do and more. After a couple weeks introducing the case studies and thinking about how cities work, we dedicated one day of class to each student’s ‘area of expertise,’ which included (in addition to the three listed above) housing, deviancy, entertainment, and six others.
Roman cities have started to come alive to us as interesting, lively, and complex places, but I think that nothing will substitute for being on-site. So far, on campus in Crawfordsville, our tools have been books, articles, groundplans, and photographs of sites and artifacts. Despite the best efforts of this professor, the objects of our examination – once noisy and bustling cities whose inhabitants have been silent for centuries – can seem like part of an intellectual game. That we are studying real people with real problems doesn’t always sink in.
In Italy, this cognitive distance will be shrunk radically and inalterably. Standing amidst the sprawling remains of Pompeii, a city of some 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants, it will be hard not to consider the names, faces, lives, and passions of those who once populated the city’s markets, homes, streets, and amphitheater. In an empathetic and interactive experience, we’ll be able to put ourselves back in Roman sandals and experiment with the sights and other sensory phenomena of an ancient city. What’s it like to walk along the streets? To hear a stage whisper from the upper reaches of a well-designed theater? To be dwarfed by a looming and gleaming temple? To enter the carefully-scripted environment of a Roman house?
Our trip has two main parts: three days staying in Pompeii and visiting ancient sites around the Bay of Naples, and five days studying ancient Rome and its port city of Ostia. Along the way, each student will give three reports related to his area of expertise; along with the help of Professors Leslie and Joe Day, I’ll lead us through sites and museums related to our topic; and many more discussions will undoubtedly unfold about any number of topics: scholarship and ideas, the meeting of cultures, the difficulties of expressing one’s self in a foreign land, and the likelihood that we’ve just eaten the best pizza on the planet, to name only a few possibilities. For these twelve diverse Wabash students – Hoosiers and Texans, classicists and pre-meds, the few inveterate travelers and the many neophytes – modern Italy will provide as many lessons, I suspect, as its ancient counterpart.
Over the last few days, during the tough slog to the semester’s finish line, I’ve been reminding myself and the students that, within one week, we’ll be on-site in Italy. It’s been heartwarming to see their reactions and to anticipate sharing with them what I’ve learned to love, yet sometimes taken for granted, over many trips. I hope you check in to follow our adventures and to hear from the students in their own words.
--Professor Jeremy Hartnett