It’s 75 CE. You’re a merchant from Rome who has come to buy some fish sauce in Pompeii. Rufus, a merchant from Pompeii, is giving you a tour of the city. You have just arrived in front of a large aristocratic house, which Rufus has told you belongs to one of Pompeii’s most important aristocrats: Lucius Popidius Secundus.
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You look at the huge bronze doors, and feel a shiver run down your spine, even though the day is hot.
“Who lives there?”
Rufus gives a snort. “Lucius Popidius Secundus,” he says derisively, though he lowers his voice to a whisper and looks around him all the same. He gives you a knowing look. “There are plenty of stories I could tell you about him, my friend.
“He’s from one of the oldest families in Pompeii. Look,” Rufus says more loudly, and he points to an election notice painted up on the front wall in red. “Fabius and Sula ask that you elect Gaius Cuspius Pansa and Lucius Popidius Secundus as aediles,” he reads aloud, tracing it with his finger. “That’s Lucius Popidius all over,” he says, lowering his voice back to its conspiratorial tone. “Says he’s Pompeii’s man through and through, but really, he’s just in it for the power.”
You don’t really understand what Rufus means, so you peer through the large bronze doors which are standing slightly ajar, and catch sight of a long corridor leading into a large hall with a fountain playing at the centre. Behind it, you can just glimpse a couple of beautiful colonnaded gardens filled with statues and – in one – a swimming pool.
“It’s very grand,” you admit. “Some of the senators in Rome would give a lot for a house like this.”
Rufus looks pleased and leads you on.
A few streets down, you stop again and stare in delight.
“But this is just like Rome!” you exclaim. You are staring at a large amphitheatre, with arched walls towering up overhead. It sounds like the gladiators are training: you can hear the sounds of swords clashing against shields, the whoosh of nets and tridents and the shouts of the trainer, urging the gladiators on. You turn excitedly to Rufus. “The Emperor Vespasian is building one in the very centre of Rome, it will be the largest amphitheatre the world has ever seen.” Rufus looks a little hurt, so you add quickly, “But of course, this one’s very big too.” And it’s true. As you quickly scan the structure, you guess that it will hold around 20,000 people – not a bad audience to watch the gladiatorial games.
“The only one in Campania that’s larger is at Capua,” Rufus boasts, his smile coming back. Then he looks up at the sky and the sun, which is sinking west behind the mountain. “It’s getting late,” he says. “We should probably make our way over to the Herculaneum Gate if you want to get your fish sauce in time before the shops close.”
You nod, and you make your way back up another long street. You twist your head right and left to see everything – the bustling bars doling out wine from large jars set in the counters; the bakeries, where donkeys wearily walk round and round to grind the grain and ash-smeared bakers hurry in and out to deliver their customers’ loaves; you even spot a couple of single rooms in the basements of some of the shops where heavily-painted women are leading men in behind a curtain, giggling.
“Is Pompeii always this busy?” you ask, walking nimbly across the stepping stones as you cross a road.
Rufus smirks. “Always,” he says, turning a corner and making his way onto a curved road – one of the only ones you’ve been on that wasn’t on the grid system, you realise. You think that this must be the oldest part of the town, built before the grid system came in from Greece. “Here you are.”
He stops short. To the right of you is an odd, triangular-shaped block of houses – squeezed in, you realise, between the old curved street and the new straight ones. It’s filled with factories, all of them with tanks sunk in the ground and full to the brim with water. You bring your hand immediately to your nose.
“Ugh – it stinks!”
Rufus laughs. “Fish sauce tastes better than it smells,” he admits. “But Pompeii’s Herculaneum Gate has the best in town. You won’t do better than here.” You turn your head to the left and see, at the end of the street, another large gate leading out of the city, and a milestone labelled “Herculaneum: 10 miles.” It must be another town around the Bay, you think.
“Well, this is where I leave you.”
You realise that Rufus is talking to you, and turn back to look at him. He’s grinning at you, hand outstretched once more.
“Good luck with your sauce,” he says jovially, “and give my regards to your father.”
“I will, I will,” you say, shaking his hand again. “Thank you for the tour.”
He waves your thanks away as if he’s swatting a particularly large fly. “It’s nothing. You’ll be able to find your way back again?” he asks.
You gaze back down the crooked street, past the crowds of bustling merchants and the endless bars and houses that all look the same.
“I — well —”
You look back at Rufus, about to ask him for directions to the harbour. But he’s already gone, disappeared into the crowds of Pompeiians swarming down the street.
You sigh. You suppose you’ll have to find your way back by yourself.
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Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.