On the clamorous streets of Naples, food is an obsession. Neapolitans live to eat, not the other way round, and the enjoyment of good food and drink is practically a religion.

The same was true of its predecessor just down the coast – the resort city of Pompeii.

A culinary paradise at the heart of a rich agricultural area, this spectacular Roman town was surrounded by orchards, farms, rich fishing grounds, olive groves and, most importantly, vineyards.

Its inhabitants and visitors – who came from across the Roman empire – feasted at grand banquets and humble taverns, in cool gardens beside gently trickling fountains, at dusty takeaway stalls or in beautiful ‘triclinia’ – lavishly ornate dining rooms decorated with intricate frescoes and mosaics of the very highest quality. Commerce also revolved around food and drink – not least the production of wine.

Of course all that came to an end one dark day in AD 79, when Vesuvius, in whose shadow the city lay, blew its top.

The city, along with neighbouring Herculanium and its outlying farms and villas, were buried in layers of pulverized pumice and hot ash which came in waves as the superheated volcanic cloud towered into the sky, blackening out the sun, and collapsed.

People were killed instantly in pyroclastic surges, which reached temperatures of 300 °C, or were buried as the roofs of buildings in which they sheltered collapsed under the weight of ash.

With little time to escape, they died where they lived, worked and dined, surrounded by their possessions... and their food.

The ruins of Pompeii today are a time capsule – the means of its destruction preserving a way of life which seems uncannily familiar to us today.

Its excavation has revealed treasures of unimaginable beauty, but also humdrum domestic objects, all of which give an insight into Roman life – whether nobles, merchants or slaves.

And it is those items which have inspired the Ashmolean’s blockbuster summer exhibition Last Supper in Pompeii.

The show looks beyond the horror of Pompeii’s sudden destruction to celebrate the lives of its cultured inhabitants, and it does so through the medium of food.

The show is the personal project of Roman ‘nut’ and foodie, Dr Paul Roberts.

Oxford Mail:

Paul, the Sackler Keeper of the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum has a deep affection for the Bay of Naples, its people, history and their food (and wine!) and explains that there is no better way to tell the story of Pompeii than through its culinary delights.

Read more: Feast on the treasures of Pompeii at Ashmolean

“I grew up in a restaurant, so naturally I have always been fascinated by food, how it is produced, cooked, served and consumed. It’s my life.”

Paul’s obsession with the Roman cultures of the Bay of Naples was given free reign when he found himself Senior Roman Curator at the British Museum, where he curated the exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

But, he says, it is this show for the Ashmolean which has satisfied a long ambition to tell the story of the Romans through what they ate and drank.

“It celebrates the Roman love affair with food and drink – a journey from fields and vineyards to markets and shops, from tables and toilets to the tomb,” he says.

“Nothing tells the story of Pompeii better than food. It was a country city at the centre of a rich farming area and vineyards. It was the Napa Valley of its day, and that’s why food and wine was so important.

Oxford Mail:

“By telling its story through food, we find something which we all have in common. It shows us that these were real people, not just senators and gladiators, though they are there too, but shopkeepers, customers, butchers, restaurateurs and farmers. It is seeing the real people behind the tragedy.”

Items loaned for the show come from the esteemed National Archaeological Museum in Naples – home to some of the Roman world’s finest treasures – as well as Pompeii, surrounding villas, and the extraordinary Greek colony of Paestum, near present day Salerno.

They include a stunning mosaic of seafood, a cheerful skeleton – which once adorned a dining room wall (Romans were acutely aware of their own mortality), preserved food, and a statue of Bacchus – the god of wine and intoxication. There is also the famous Resin Lady – a full cast of a victim of the eruption; the only one which can be transported.

“It’s not a ‘disaster’ show, but a celebration of food and life,” says Paul. “We only talk about the eruption at the end. The destruction of Pompeii was a disaster, but it is bittersweet as it has also lead to its preservation.

“It was a disaster to them but a blessing to us.”

  • Last Supper in Pompeii is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until January 12.
  • Go to ashmolean.org/pompeii
  • More on the show in this week’s Oxford TimesOxford Mail:
  • The Ashmolean team, with Dr Paul Roberts and Xa Sturgis, third and fourth from right, welcomed the team from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples and Pompeii Archeological Park for the opening of the show