My wife and I were recently in Italy. It was a last minute thing, taking advantage of the fact that our daughter was away with her school. So at short notice I found myself standing on the worn streets of Pompeii, somewhere I’d always wanted to go without believing I ever would. Like most people, I was amazed at the scale of the place; it’s a sizeable town. It seems that the Roman Empire wasn’t made up after all.
Of course you can’t help but notice Vesuvius, rising over the bay of Naples like a giant health warning, but then, historical fiction writers aside, we are a species of the present. Rich volcanic soil, close to the sea; what could possibly go wrong? We found our way to the Garden of the Fugitives, looked at the casts of the victims: men, women, children, dogs. I switched my electronic guide to listen to Pliny the Younger describe the horror of the eruption for maximum voyeuristic effect.
Approaching midday we’d reached the far end of the site where there’s an arena that used to seat 20,000. Incredible. As we stood on the ground where the gladiators fought there was a low rumble and the wind freshened. A black monster of a cloud crept around the side of Vesuvius and came straight for us. As the rain started, we found what shelter we could and counted the seconds between lighting strikes and thunder. At noon the church bells sounded in modern Pompeii as if to say it was time to run again. My tourist imagination glimpsed AD79; the deafening eruption, the near darkness, the pumice stone raining down until it was metres deep. Some escaped: those that ran early and fought their way through the crush to one of the Pompeii’s seven city gates and then fled by sea or land. Many more died, clinging to the false security of home or gods. Some were found curled next to their money. I don’t know what warnings there were. Perhaps tell-tale quakes and or a trickle of smoke foreshadowing what was to come. It got me thinking on how poor humans are at dealing with impending doom.
The US Civil War was a long time coming. For decades before, tensions built as America expanded into the West and argued over whether slavery should follow the frontier and be adopted in the new states as they entered the Union. There were many attempts at solutions to head off conflict, most of them morally abhorrent schemes to coral the idea of freedom by geography or law. None ultimately worked since the contradiction on freedom was written into the constitution itself and vested interest wasn’t about to budge. Like the people of Pompeii they clung to their wealth. After the John Brown raid in Virginia, his clumsy and violent attempt to incite a slave revolt, few people believed war could be avoided. The ground was rumbling and smoke was in the air. War followed eighteen months later. 650,000 died.
It’s easy to patronise the past, to assume we’d have fled our homes at Pompeii, that we’d have told everybody to just calm down as the skin was tightened on the war drums in 1860’s America. Yet I’ve read enough to know that there were some smart people trying to avoid civil war; that the political classes of that time were better versed in philosophy and the rule of law than the soundbite politicians of today. It didn’t help. Maybe we have averted or escaped disaster in the past; history doesn’t shout over much about things that were quietly sorted out.
When we came home from Italy it was to hear that carbon in the atmosphere has spiked and reached a new high, as if the wildfires across the world and record storms hadn’t told us that already. News of catastrophe vied with political scandal and the release of the latest iPhone. Head for the gates people, if you can find them.