Comparison of ancient Pompeii and modern society is a difficult one to make, yet not impossible. By all accounts life in a Roman provincial city wouldn’t have been an easy step for us to make as inhabitants of the 21st century, perhaps closer as inhabitants in pre-industrial revolution times, eg 16-17th century Britain. It was certainly exotic in many ways but I am personally certain that it would prove easier than a jump into some countries today or into the middle ages.
Recent scientific research on the bones excavated in pompeii has also yielded surprising results which we can glibly summarise by saying that Pompeian society suffered worse oral hygiene but otherwise had very similar issues in terms of obesity through lifestyle, similar average height of individuals to people living in that region today and most surprisingly a longer life expectancy than we have previously believed (though still unlikely to be the same as ours).
What better than to challenge ourselves than to start with a list of similarities and differences (the approach is rather loose but you have to start somewhere!):
Similarities between Pompeii and “the modern world”.
- Market economy with laws of supply and demand, enabled by a well structured legal system, infrastructure, coinage.
- Pompeii grew through a period of economic growth and development. Like the western world of today it was about to be hit by the implications of competition, cheap labour and goods from foreign competitors.
- Lived the “American dream”: even a freed slave could aspire to become a rich banker such as Lucius Caecilius Secundus, reach the top of society and what he couldn’t achieve might be achieved by his descendents.
- Highly developed bureaucracy and legal system – which included laws regarding divorce, property ownership, inheritance, morality…
- Morality: I place it here as a challenge. Make a mental note of some easy examples as to why our modern morality is different from what it was then and read on. Then think about it again.
- Hooligans at the stadiums: the common man was motivated by “Panem et Circenses” (bread and circus), not to mention the races, betting and gambling.
- Fast food shops along the street
- Religion and religious tollerance – This is a generic statement, and hovers between the similarities and difference. It was relatively free to worship whoever you would wish to worship so long as you didn’t go against the state by doing so. This latter statement is important since the Christians initially fell awry of the established state religion which during the Empire was increasingly focused around the Emperor himself and hence at odds with monotheist ideas (think of self-centred Emperor Nero for example).
- Compulsory military service (depending on countries and epoch actually, most western countries have recently moved to a professional army model, much in line with ancient Rome.
- Increasing economic and social pressure from “the East”. I find this a particularly intriguing parallel.
Differences between Pompeii and the modern world
- Emancipation of women, although if you compared to a 100 years ago it would have been a similarity!
- Punishment didn’t really match the crime (and it could be rather cruel too – possibly more similar to some Eastern countries)
- Slavery (but we too had slaves not so long ago and a keen eye at the changing laws regarding treatment of slaves in ancient Rome can, to a degree, assuage the polarised view we may have). Nevertheless, it’s a difference.
- Pervasive family structure of society and certainly strong social class divisions.
- Value of human life
- Technological advancement, medicine, instrumentation, weapons of mass destruction.
- Average life span
In setting the title I have cheated a little. But I have cheated so that I could make a point: What do we consider as “the modern world”? When we speak of Pompeii we span an age from the 2nd Century BC to the 1st Century AD. Even if we start with Roman domination of the city we easily cover the best part of two centuries.
If we were to ask the same question some 2 centuries ago (reputedly the beginning of the modern age, with the industrial revolution) I would suggest that many of the items which are in the “Differences” list would likely be in the “Similarities”. For example “Emancipation of women” was at about the same point. “Slavery”…. Hmmm, lots of children forced to work in unhealthy conditions… “Value of human life”: let’s take a look at the colonies built in the past centuries or perhaps some countries nowadays accused of using child labour…
A final interesting comparison is how Pompeii was the classic example of the simple and perfect bucolic life described by poets such as Virgil, Horace and others of the Augustan age: A similar literary vein existed in Victorian Britain might we see such a dream resurge as people tire of the stresses of city.
The above notes are only a start, please write us any views and ideas you may have to progress the difficult subject of comparing ancient Roman society and life in Pompeii to the modern world.