Monday, 13 July 2009

the pompeiians didn't have a word for 'volcano'

When I visited the Melbourne Museum's special exhibition, A Day in Pompeii, I was surprised to learn that Latin had no word for volcano.

I had expected to enjoy the exhibition in an uncomplicated way, but reckoned without the fact that the ancient disaster would evoke such strong memories of the recent bushfires here in Victoria. Embarrassed by my reaction, I surreptitiously wiped away the tears as I watched a realistic 3-D computer animation of the pyroclastic cloud rolling down the mountain towards the town of Pompeii. I wondered how many others had the same reaction - the teenage girl beside me spent the entire time sobbing into her mother's breast, the mother gently rubbing her daughter's shoulder.

And the room with the plaster casts of people and animals who died in agony...too confronting in Victoria in 2009.

The striking point made in the exhibition - in what I am sure would be an unintentional reference to the current Royal Commission into the recent deaths here - is that the Pompeiians had to decide whether to stay to defend their property or leave early. Those who fled lived, those who stayed died.

They didn't know what they faced, because they didn't know what a volcano could do. Which seems strange, given the Latin root of the word.

Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture by Christopher Tuplin and Tracey Elizabeth Rihll, contains an article by Harry M. Hine suggesting the word volcano was coined by Italian or Portuguese sailors as recently as the fifteenth century CE.

When the ancients discussed volcanoes, it was specific named volcanoes, such as Etna, which was one of the more well-known ones. They didn't have a tradition of discussing volcanic activity in a general way, because there hadn't been many eruptions in Europe. Opportunities to witness volcanic activity were rare and localized. Before Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Etna was the only volcano close enough to major cities to be visible from them.

The modern city of Naples lives on the edge of disaster, as the ancients did - the difference being that the inhabitants have a word for volcano, understand what can happen and should receive some warning beforehand. In a short film about Naples, the narrator argued the necessity for a plan to evacuate the city.

And I wondered how we could evacuate our towns buried in the heart of the flammable bush, with the only possible exits along narrow tree-lined roads.

Let's hope it isn't another drought-stricken summer.


Brooklyn said...


parlance said...

Thanks, Brooklyn.

I was surprised to hear they didn't know what a danger they were living next to.