Sometimes it can feel as though we are living in unprecedentedly insecure times. The turbulent surprise of Brexit, the uncertainty of potential presidential leadership in the US, the threat of home-grown, lone wolf terrorist attacks … it can be enough to make us want to batten down the hatches and retreat. History, however, teaches us that – for different reasons, at different times, in different places – ‘twas ever thus’, and insecurity has always been a significant feature in our human journey. I recently visited Pompeii, famous for its disappearance under metres of ash after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and a study of the town reminds us that even after a terrible disaster, the seeds of our civilisation can still take root again and grow.
As you will know if you have visited Pompeii, there are some remarkable similarities between life in Pompeii and life today – good and bad. Some direct correlations with the modern day exist in, for example, the width of the wagon wheel tracks, which had to be of a standard size to enable the building of stepping stones across the often flooded streets, and which translate exactly into the width of modern railway gauges. The houses exhibit high degrees of culture and sophistication, with beautiful paintings, statues and mosaics. Women could inherit land, divorce and set up in business. As an unsettling prick to our modern conscience, there was an obvious disparity between rich and poor, as well as a whiff of a decay setting in, for if the leaders took time to lounge around their fountains, who was overseeing the running of the Empire? And what deprivation was really occurring in the outposts of the Empire, in order to feed the fat of the Roman cities?
It would be foolish to pretend that life in Pompeii represents the epitome of a civilisation, just as it would be foolish to imagine that we, today, have all the answers either. Both are/were a work in progress. In the negatives, we see lessons not yet learned, while the positives act as an encouragement as we reflect on the resilience of the human spirit, and its constant striving to improve and succeed. Frozen in time as it is, Pompeii is a curiously uplifting place that connects us with our history in a way that few other places in the world can do.
And yet we should not forget one of the most powerful lessons to emerge from Pompeii: complacency in any form, about any aspect of our society or our civilisation, is something to beware, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past – the mistakes that led to the burial of Pompeii. The central lesson of the story of Pompeii is that when seismic shudders shake our world, and when the volcano – literal or figurative – starts to rumble, we should pay heed. We live in a far from perfect world, and we have so much more to do if we are to protect, preserve and evolve what is most precious and meaningful in it. A number of volcanoes are rumbling in our times… let us not ignore the warning signs around us that some kind of action, commitment, dedication and attention is required of us. And if we can act together, we can outwit even volcanoes.