A quotation variously attributed to Friedrich the Great of Prussia and Napoleon Bonaparte of France says that an army marches on its stomach. Essential to the progress of a fighting force, food it seems may also be essential to understanding a society.
Considering the notion that history travels on its stomach too, (certainly, historians do), it was interesting to note that the recent excavation of a portion of the ancient city of Pompeii revealed much about the way its 13,000 citizens ate, and by extension, how they lived.
Pompeii, you may recall from many an afternoon spent snoozing through World History class, was destroyed in August of 79 A.D. by a gigantic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic eruption showered the city with debris. The eruption was followed the next day by clouds of hot gases. Buildings were destroyed, the population was crushed or asphyxiated, and the city was buried beneath a blanket of ash and pumice. Pompeii slumbered in a grave of volcanic ash, perfectly preserved until excavations which began in the 1700s revealed a sophisticated Greco-Roman city frozen in time.
The ruins provide us with a snapshot of what surely was an ordinary day in the lives of the 13,000 inhabitants of Pompeii. A forum and an amphitheater were among the public buildings that stood until that fateful day. Included also were expansive villas and houses of various kinds dating back to the time before Christ.
But perhaps more interesting was what was unearthed inside those buildings — preserved remains of people sheltering in place from the volcanic eruption as well of those who lay buried as they attempted to flee the red-hot onslaught from above. The buildings and their contents revealed day-to-day life in that part of the world nearly 2,000 years ago. The most recent excavation, news of which was published just last week, reveals much more. Indeed, it lets us know that though many things have changed since the year 79 A.D., many are the same, at least in the culinary world.
We might want to take credit, or the blame, for development of the fast-food eatery and call it a reflection of our busy schedules and on-the-go lifestyle. But the most recent excavation at Pompeii shows that we missed it by at least two millennia.
The longtime director of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, Massimo Osanna, said that while some 80 fast foods had been found at Pompeii, the recent excavation which was begun in 2019, is the first time that a hot food and drink eatery called a thermopolium was completely unearthed. The thermopolium contains a multi-sided counter with wide holes in the top to hold deep vessels for hot foods, similar to the soup containers that are present in today’s salad bars. Frescoes painted on the counter advertise the menu and still another fresco reminds patrons to leash their dogs.
“We know what they were eating that day,” Osanna said. The food remains found there indicated “what’s popular with the common folk,” Osanna told Italian state TV, adding that street-food places were not frequented by the Roman elite.
That’s all very interesting, you might say, but what does a place in Italy buried for centuries under 9 feet of debris have to do with modern-day Northeast Arkansas? I’d argue it has plenty to do with day-to-day life in our corner of the world, if, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, we will just suspend our disbelief for a moment.
It’s extremely unlikely that some heretofore unknown and long-dormant volcano atop Crowley’s Ridge will someday decide suddenly to erupt and bury Jonesboro or another of NEA’s cities in 9 feet of lava, ash and pumice. But, play along for a moment and assume that Jonesboro (or any other city) was frozen in time. And further suppose that 1,700 years later, archaeologists came along and unearthed us and our city, caught dead as it were, living our day-to-day lives.
What would they find and what would they assume from those findings?
I think the first thing archaeologists would notice is what a beautiful place we live in and how we have great natural and human resources. They’d find that we have all kinds of homes, from elaborate palaces to modest cottages. They’d see however, that unfortunately, shelters and overpasses house people who don’t have places to call home.
They’d find that we work at jobs that require varying levels of skill, expertise and training, many of which use technology that is in a word, amazing. Maybe they could get an idea that despite the fact that many companies need workers and are willing to pay them fairly, some jobs go unfilled and some people go jobless.
Archaeologists would see quickly that we’re in love with our automobiles and we’re in love with our fast food. We love to combine the two, zipping through the drive-through and picking up lunch or dinner, often eating it in the car on the way to an appointment for which we’re already late. The scholars of the year 3720 might see that as a people we eat too much of the wrong things, don’t exercise enough and as a result suffer alarming rates of chronic disease and disability.
Maybe they’ll see that in 2020 we fought an unseen enemy, a virus that took a terrible toll on our people and our economy, and that we’re getting up off the floor and battling back.
If our imaginary volcano will hold off another year or two, the archaeologists of 3720 might get a very different picture of what life here is really like.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.