Roman into the past with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
WORDS BY JOCELYN CHAN
When I see Andrew Wallace-Hadrill for the first time – in the flesh, that is – he is scrambling out of his seat. ‘Sorry! Taking a selfie,’ he says, and follows the woman waiting eagerly by his side to find an ideal spot for their snap.
To Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, selfie requests are nothing new. As a professor at Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics, head of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, and a presenter in many BBC Roman history documentaries, he is quite the celebrity among ancient history circles. During high school, a friend and I gave him the epithet “the Bae”, and one of the History teachers owned a shirt emblazoned with the words “Mrs Andrew Wallace-Hadrill”. But, I want to know, did he ever entertain the thought that he would become this celebrated in the field of Roman history?
‘I had no idea!’ he cries. ‘I was sixteen when I decided I was going to be a Roman historian.’ In many ways, he does look very much like the archetypal ancient historian; he is dressed very properly in shades of navy blue – fitting, given the backdrop of the Maritime Museum – and on one finger, he sports a sigil ring inlaid with a wine-dark stone, carved with a profile in the Roman fashion. On his forehead, mysteriously, is a small circular band-aid.
Wallace-Hadrill comes from a family of historians. His father, mediaeval historian John Michael Wallace-Hadrill, took him on his first holiday to Rome and the Bay of Naples. It was here that the younger Wallace-Hadrill ‘discovered the sites, the material reality of antiquity’.
‘Mercifully,’ he adds, ‘I had no idea back then that there would be anything like a television documentary to torment me!’
Surely, he can share all his knowledge with the world through these!
‘Can I say something about that?’ says Wallace-Hadrill. ‘One of the really frustrating things about doing a documentary is that you aren’t the author. The producer-director is the real author, and they get to decide which bits of all you want to say will actually get aired.’
Wallace-Hadrill filming a documentary. Photo: BBC
Quite a few of his documentaries are on Pompeii and Herculaneum, the towns famously buried in the Vesuvius eruption of AD79. It’s a macabre end, and the plaster casts of the Pompeians’ bodies still hold a degree of morbid fascination for modern enthusiasts. But is this the driving factor of interest in this history among the public?
‘It is one of the things,’ Wallace-Hadrill allows. ‘There is no window into the ancient world so vivid, so full of different – ah – different insights. The spectacle of death is part of it, but it’s only a tiny part of it.’
So what else is there?
‘It’s the spectacle of life, oddly enough!’ he says. ‘Typically, we find corpses and so on in cemeteries, outside cities. You don’t find, at the same time, their homes. These were people who died in a place they were never meant to die, or buried in a place they were never meant to be buried – and it’s right under the places they lived. So you can draw the connection between death and life with an immediacy that isn’t really possible in other places.’
As a social historian, the preserved domestic is where he most effectively finds his sources. ‘You can see the rooms in which they lived. You can see assorted objects, you can see the food they ate’ – in his peculiarly posh accent, he pronounces the word as et – ‘you can study their diet, you can see food depicted in paintings…’ Here, he pauses as the drinks arrive. But it’s a subject close to heart, and he ignores his little cup of coffee to continue.
‘Because of inscriptions and documents sitting alongside all these other types of information, you get a really vivid picture of real people, real society,’ he says. ‘To me, it’s really interesting to see that struggle in which people try to assert themselves in that society.’
Plaster cast of wild boar at Pompeii. Photo: Meg Weaver
Wallace-Hadrill also has a particular connection to Herculaneum as head of the Conservation Project there, but denies vehemently that he loves it more than Pompeii. ‘If I say that, then I’ll allow Mary Beard to steal Pompeii from me!’ he cries, referring to his colleague who also famously presents documentaries on Pompeii. ‘Pompeii is mine!’
But there is no denying that his passion for Herculaneum is strong. ‘I had a joke at the beginning of my lecture last night, where [the Maritime Museum] called their exhibition “Escape from Pompeii” – and I put “Escape from Pompeii – come and visit Herculaneum”!’ He laughs.
What, then, can Herculaneum offer that Pompeii cannot?
‘It offers us depth – literal depth,’ he says. ‘You’ve got, quite typically, upper floors and that makes a tremendous difference.’ At Pompeii, the weight of falling ash and pumice caused roofs too collapse, but the pyroclastic flows which buried Herculaneum preserved the buildings there. The sheer heat of the volcanic matter carbonised and preserved organic remains such as wood, food, and fabric – items which have long disintegrated in Pompeii.
‘There’s something really vivid about an upper-floor room with wooden elements visible, that gives you a feeling of being in a real Roman’s home,’ he says.
Samnite House in Herculaneum. Photo: Dave Tonkin
He’s also got quite a bit of interest in Herculaneum’s sewers, and laughs when I mention it. ‘The stuff that’s underground is really, really important, and your shit… A vast quantity of everything you chuck down the toilet gives enormous insight into life.’
Wallace-Hadrill has also been a staunch advocate for the conservation of archaeological sites and artefacts. Having been dug up and neglected for so long, archaeologists have been fiercely battling the degradation of this material. As a historian, what does he feel is his main role in conservation?
‘It’s not just about conservation, it’s about heritage,’ he says. ‘It’s full of information for us; without what has been transmitted, I can’t tell any story about the past. It’s insanity not to look after the traces of the past you’ve been lucky enough to capture.’
Then he laughs. ‘I’ll find that one quoted back to me!’ he adds ironically. ‘He said it was insanity!’
But he reaffirms his position. ‘The public can do the same. We’re so lucky to be able to have that window into the past. We need to care for it and care about it.’ He also stresses the importance of the museum’s role in this endeavour. ‘You can’t preserve artefacts on site, you can’t display them on site. It’s very costly and difficult, and you haven’t got air conditioning, and artefacts disintegrate and get stolen.’
The demise of Pompeii and Herculaneum has also inspired many a literary mind, but in adaptation there’s bound to be errors. What are some of the misconceptions, I ask, that he’s had to correct about Roman culture?
It turns out he’s very interested in the misrepresentation of Roman dinner parties. ‘There have been so many attempts to depict the Roman orgy over time. I did a little research into this, and I discovered that attempts to depict the Romans behaving orgiastically go back to a period when they were doing it themselves.’ He laughs.
‘One typical scene of the Roman orgy in film is the person with the bunch of grapes, eating grapes like this.’ Here, he mimes holding a bunch of grapes over his head and eating them. This gets him quite worked up. ‘There is no evidence whatsoever about bunches of grapes being a particularly orgiastic way of… You squeeze the grapes, and make wine out of them!’ he says indignantly.
The only photo I could find with grapes and without naked people when I Googled “roman orgy”. I don’t know what I expected. Photo: Franklin Espinal
‘On the other hand,’ he concedes, ‘I don’t mind people misrepresenting the past. I love it when modern novelists have their go at representing the past, because they reach places which the Roman social historian like me, trying to work with evidence and not using your imagination, aren’t allowed to reach. And you need people who are pushing the boundaries of where the evidence can take us all the time, and at that point you use your critical faculties and you say: OK, is this plausible? You need to analyse it.’
At this point, the man who’s organising his schedule steps in. Looks like it’s time for me to wrap up; ironically enough, he has to go to the University of Sydney to talk to students in the Nicholson Museum. Well that’s fitting, because there’s a Lego mini-me of Wallace-Hadrill in the Lego Pompeii exhibit there, and I want to know what he thinks of it.
‘I haven’t seen the Lego! And that’s why I’m going there! But I’ve seen photographs of “myself” – allegedly – and of course I do! I think it’s a fabulous idea, it’s whole bunch of fun.’