Pompeii’s Final Hours: New Evidence – Channel 5


I was hoping for a few mentions of Caecilius, but there wasn’t even one. Instead, we got John Sergeant prancing around half-naked and eating bulls’ testicles!   Aidan Turner wandering about with no shirt on is all very well 😉 , but, whilst I’m sure John Sergeant is a very nice bloke, I didn’t particularly need to see him bare-chested and having oil rubbed all over his back. Kudos to him for having the confidence to be filmed doing that, though. I scuttle off to pull a full-length wrap on over my substantial swimming costume the second I get out of the pool!

Anyway, moving swiftly on! It was all a bit confused, because they said they’d be talking about the three days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius, but then they kept going off to talk about new excavations and scanning casts. That was all very interesting, but I don’t know where the three days thing came into it, except that John Sergeant got to wander round food stalls in Naples, eat a large banquet whilst dressed up as a Roman senator, visit a bath-house (hence the bare chest and the oil), hang around playing cards in a Neapolitan bar, and take a boat trip round the bay. Nice work if you can get it!

The idea seemed to be that everyone in Pompeii spent the city’s last few days out enjoying themselves. Six hour working day, then off to watch a gladiator show or sit in a bar. This presumably applied only to well-to-do men. I think the idea was that it was like the image of everyone on the Home Front enjoying the war – eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. They kept saying that people must have realised that something was seriously wrong, because of the earth tremors. But they also kept saying that people there were used to earth tremors so they wouldn’t have been unduly worried. As I said, it was all a bit confused!

The dates were confusing, apart from anything else. The date usually given for the eruption of Vesuvius, based on letters written by Pliny the Younger, is 24-25 August AD. Channel 5 kept giving the date as 24-25 October AD. A lot of evidence points to the eruption having taken place in the autumn rather than the summer, and many people think that the date given by Pliny may have been misread or copied down wrongly – but, as the August date’s still the one generally accepted, they really should have explained why they were giving the October date instead. They didn’t explain that, but they did helpfully point out that people in Pompeii didn’t eat pasta or tomatoes. Or drink orange juice. And they provided subtitles for Italians speaking in perfectly clear English.

OK, enough sarcasm. Bettany Hughes and Raksha Dave did actually get to see some new excavations. Only two-thirds of the city has been excavated, but new excavations are rare. Cynics think that this is to avoid disrupting tourism. Seeing the newly excavated buildings, and even the ones excavated years ago, was genuinely moving, as was seeing things like loaves of bread, perfectly preserved. It’s like a story out of the Bible, or a legend, or a sci-fi novel. One day, life was going on as normal, and then everything was just destroyed … and preserved, in ash. All those casts – they were all real people, who lived and breathed and led their lives, and were then just cut down in the street, like the White Witch turning people in Narnia into stone where they stood … except that the Narnians got to come back to life. It’s almost unthinkable.

Some of the casts were taken to a hospital in Naples, and scanned in a modern day scanner and some of the bones were taken for detailed analysis. That – hooray!! – genuinely was new evidence. It was strange. Hospital staff had given up their time to do this, and they were all crowding round the casts – as Raksha Dave said, like some weird version of Casualty, but with people who’d been dead for nearly two millennia. I’m never sure how I feel about that sort of thing. Would you want your remains being examined for a TV programme, in two thousand years’ time? Or is the concept so hard to grasp that you wouldn’t really care? Anyway, the scans showed that a cast thought to be male was actually female, and a cast thought to be that of a gladiator was actually that of a young lad! Although the one thought to be a muleteer really was a muleteer.

Incidentally, Herculaneum barely got a mention. I recently read a book which compared Herculaneum to Nagasaki (i.e. and Pompeii to Hiroshima). Poor Herculaneum. No-one ever talks about it!  But Pompeii’s been talked about a lot – and most of what was in this three-part series was same old, same old. It was interesting, and it was sad, but putting “New Evidence” in the title was pushing it a bit! The series didn’t really seem to know what it wanted to be. One minute, it was genuine history and archaeology. The next, it was pending-doom music with commentary on what was happening with the eruption at a particular time of day. The next, it was John Sergeant eating bulls’ testicles. Stuffed with pepper, fennel seed and cumin, just in case anyone wants to know.

And they seemed determined to make out that modern-day Naples was just like Pompeii – hence the aforementioned food stalls and bars. And complete with curses. Well, if they used them against Juventus, they didn’t work very well.

So I’m not really sure what I thought of it, quite honestly. It was all a bit muddled. I’m just rather narked that they never mentioned Caecilius. How can anyone make three programmes on Pompeii and not mention Caecilius?!

2 thoughts on “Pompeii’s Final Hours: New Evidence – Channel 5

  1. Favid

    A very harsh review. I found it a fascinating encounter with the past and John Sargeant’s diversions into today’s Pompeii Added realism and a test from absorbing so much of the ancient relics presented.
    I’ve been to Pompeii and this programme makes me want to go back for another look.


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