NAPLES, ITALY – September 2007

High School Latin

Although I have almost no knowledge of the language to boast about, I actually studied Latin for four years during High School.

What I have retained in my memory, however, is that to assist in our learning, our text books featured a fictional community in Pompeii. I recall being more fascinated, though, by the tragedy which befell Pompeii than I was about the language in which the family in the story used to scold their dog, Cerebus.

The people of Pompeii, ignoring the rumblings from Vesuvius, believing that their gods would protect them; the whole town being buried in lava; a donkey falling into a hole centuries later leading to the discovery of the buried city; cavities in the lava proving to be the space left by decomposed animals and humans which, when replaced by plaster-of-paris, revealed the shape of once living organisms twisted in convulsions of pain often with their hands covering their tortured faces.

All compelling stuff to my teenage mind.

Standing in the forum, as we did today, one does get a sense of what a busy commercial centre it must have been in 79AD when Vesuvius erupted. We were shown some shops – identified by the grooves in the threshold where wooden doors used to run, two thousand years ago – residential homes and even a public bath house.

Most impressive was an entertainment complex which featured both an outdoor and an indoor theatre. The seating for each theatre was divided according to class: noblemen at the front, ordinary menfolk next and slaves, women and foreigners at the very back. I guess that in ancient Pompeii if you happened to be a slave, foreign and female you were pretty much stuffed!

One interesting anecdote conveyed by our guide was that candidates for political office in Pompeii conveyed their lofty ideals by wearing the whitest possible clothing. This was achieved, rather ironically in my view, by bleaching the cloth in urine. Whilst human urine was used, evidently the best results were achieved through the medium of camel urine as a bleaching agent.

This story brought to mind the following possible exchange between Minimus and Maximus:

MINIMUS:   Okay, we’ve tried cat pea and rhino pea. Which gives us the brightest white?

MAXIMUS:   You haven’t commented on my new toga yet...

MIN:             Your toga?

MAX:            Yup, I wore it especially for you, but you don’t even notice… You never do...

MIN:              It’s a toga. Looks just like any other toga. What’s wrong with you?

MAX:             Just thought you’d notice, that’s all…

MIN:              Look! We’ve got to focus. You know we get a week’s free entry to the bath house if      we find the best bleach. Now which is it? Cat pea or rhino pea?

MAX:             You know what we haven’t tried yet? Camel urine! I reckon we should give camel urine a go!

MIN:              Camel piss? Why camel piss?

MAX:             They’ve got two humps!  Increases the uric acid or something. There’s an independent study on the subject. Saw it published on the wall of the market place.

MIN:              Independent study? Have you smoking that stuff Potus Headius has been growing again?

MAX:             Nope. Pretty confident though. What’ya reckon?

MIN:              What do I reckon? I reckon you’re an idiot. There’s more chance of the Roman Empire falling than there is of you being right. There’s more chance of whatshisname from Nazareth being the son of God. I reckon you’d get better odds from Andrology of Totalius that this whole city will be buried in lava than you would of camel piss producing the brightest white. That’s what I reckon!

MAX:             So what’ya think of my new toga? Pretty white, don’t you think?

MIN:              Of course it’s white! It’s a new toga. All new togas are white! Would’ya stop banging on about your bloody new toga.

MAX:             It’s my old toga. Washed it in camel urine!

MIN:              That’s one beautiful toga!

MAX:             Praise Jupiter! Free entry to the bath house here we come!

MIN:              Where’d you find a camel anyway…?


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