How Pompeii was the film Pompeii?

Max Virtus shares his thoughts on the film ‘Pompeii’


Someone took his sleeves. Now he’s going to get them back.

Pompeii was a disaster. And the volcano was pretty bad too.

In the Virtus estate I have a 5D (we can’t see or sense the other 2 dimensions but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there) Imax triple deck cinema screen. Sat there upon my super comfy luxury faux leather seat, slushy in hand, I watch a variety of historically based films. It always makes me think, how historically accurate was that film? How many films take certain decisions and alter history in order to pursue the progress of narrative, develop characters or create additional tension and suspense?

For example, there weren’t just 300 scantily clad Spartans defending the pass of Thermopylae as the film ‘300’ would suggest. In fact there were some 5000 hoplites battling the Persians (but why ruin a good story)? On the flip side, to all those who declare that there was no J. Dawson aboard the Titanic you would be wrong, there was a J.Dawson… Joseph Dawson (his grave at Fairview Lawn in Nova Scotia is the most visited in the cemetery).

So how historically accurate was the 2014 film Pompeii? How Pompeii was Pompeii? Let’s find out (be warned, there are major spoilers in this escapade, spoilers so severe that there will be no need for you to watch Pompeii. Which might not be a bad thing).

Why won’t you run for your lives?!

Pompeii was the ancient Roman equivalent of a holiday resort, a place to go to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and chill out as your favorite slave peeled you a grape. But why exactly would you build your holiday home a few miles from an active volcano in the first place? Unfortunately, the original settlers had no idea that Vesuvius was active (or even a volcano for that matter) the last time this mountain with a hole erupted before 79AD was 1800BC, which destroyed all the nearby bronze age settlements and left no clues for the city builders that hanging around in the shadow of a volcano was a really, really bad idea.

In fact, the word ‘Volcano’ didn’t even exist until after Vesuvius erupted. People didn’t know that they would need a word to describe a death-dealing mountain (the world Volcano comes from Vulcan. Nope, not a pointy eared, bowl cut haired alien with flexible fingers but the Roman god of fire).

Which means that the very odd behaviour of the citizens of Pompeii in the film makes absolutely perfect sense.

On first watch it’s difficult to understand why no one seems particularly panicked about the earthquakes, sink holes and boiling hot ponds popping up around the city. Surely that would serve as a warning that you should start running now (maybe not running, walking would have been fine. Contrary to the rapid destruction of Pompeii portrayed in the film by ash clouds, fire balls and tidal waves, which occurred quicker than you can say ‘What is wrong with Jack Bauer’s accent?’ there would have been about 12 hours from when the Volcano started erupting to the first pyroclastic surges, plenty of time to walk the 6 to 8 hour distance to the relative safety of Capo di Sorrento in the south).

Milo (played by Kit Harrington’s abs) even goes for a horse ride around the destruction caused by these earthquakes with his romantic love interest Cassia, and doesn’t think of muttering his discovery to anyone in the city (Milo always mutters, no matter the dramatic or dangerous situation he’s involved in. Being attacked by a Gladiator? He mutters. Being chased by lava? He mutters. Running away from an unstoppable flaming conflagration of death? He mutters). But now it makes perfect sense.

The reason that no one was panicking and running away prior to the eruption? The citizens of Pompeii didn’t know they had anything to panic about.

See I told you, absolutely nothing to worry about.

Jack Bauer on a chariot

Senator Bauer. So evil he even gratifies models of buildings.

Senator Jack Bauer is the villain of the film. His despicable plan? Quite frankly I couldn’t even tell you. His machinations rapidly swapping between wanting to kill Milo, steal Cassia and doing something evil with Pompeii. Either way the film seeks to imply that the reason that Senator Bauer is so outrageously naughty, is that he is allowed to be so by the terrible, cruel and corrupt Roman Emperor Titus. Now, there were some splendidly awful Roman Emperors (have a peek at my escapade ‘The 3 Worst Roman Emperors’ for the full breakdown) but Emperor Titus was not one of them. Titus put an end to the constant trials of people who had spoken out or disagreed with the current Emperor, he even managed to go his entire reign without killing a single senator (which considering the senator slaying machines that were the previous Emperors, is pretty impressive). As Emperor he became known for his generosity, and the historian Suetonius states that when Titus had realised that he had managed to go an entire day without helping anyone he said, “Friends, I have lost a day.’

Titus visited Pompeii twice after the volcano erupted, donating huge amounts of his own personal fortune and that of the imperial treasury to assist the survivors (he also did the same the following year when a fire broke out in Rome and caused heavy damage to several regions). And when Titus learnt that his brother was plotting against him he REFUSED to have him banished of killed.

So the fact that the writers heavily implied that Emperor Titus executed dissenters and confiscated their property was completely made up. Just so you know.

No one knows exactly how he fit that four horse chariot through the narrow streets of Pompeii.

Later in the film Senator Bauer has stolen Cassia and is fleeing with her in his chariot at full pelt through the streets of Pompeii. Which is completely impossible. The streets of Pompeii, on a normal day, were awash with horse manure (which is why there were stepping-stones to allow you to cross the road, otherwise a sandal wearing citizen would find poo embedded around their tootsies whilst out on a stroll) so there is no way that a chariot could achieve any sort of speed across a river of faeces, let alone a river of faeces filled with bodies and rubble.

There were no Stone Statues

An inappropriate time for a smooch.

After having realised that there is no escaping the destruction wrought by Vesuvius, Milo and Cassia decide to have a dramatic kiss as the flames and smoke spewed from deep with the Earth wash over them. The burning heat transforms them into ash like statues forever held in an eternal embrace.

Now it is not the couple holding one another that I am disputing the historical accuracy of, as a couple were found doing just that by archaeologists (now known as ‘The Lovers of Pompeii’). Rather it’s the idea that the heat from a volcano magically turns people into statues like a giant Tony Hart, and that all the statues of the victims of Pompeii were formed in such a way.

Instead the statues that you can now see when visiting Pompeii were plaster casts created by the Italian excavator Fiorelli about 150 years ago. How was the possible? The heat from the Volcano was just enough to kill people without burning their clothes or flesh. The ash then fell and buried the bodies which over time decomposed but not before the ash became hardened around them. This led to people shaped holes, which Fiorelli then filled with liquid plaster, allowed to harden and then chipped away the ash. The end result was the statues of Ancient Romans frozen in states of panic and fear. Undoubtedly haunting but not created by magical firey smoke like the film makes would have you believe.

In Conclusion

So, just how Pompeii was Pompeii? I give it a 5 out of 10 on my historicalmeter (yes, the historicalmeter is a real thing. It’s got dials, cogs, levers and everything. And no, I couldn’t think of a better name for it). Which means it did better than Cleopatra but not nearly as well as Gladiator. Have you seen Pompeii? Firstly, I’m Sorry. Secondly, let me know what you thought in the comments below.

Until next time Bizarrchaeologists.