We’ve been exploring lots of Roman forts here lately, so it definitely seemed like time to balance out all our Greek and Egyptian books with some more Romans! We’ve read about Pompeii before a few times before and it immediately captured H’s imagination, so I was really excited when I spied Escape from Pompeii by Christina Balit.
We meet Tranio and Livia, two Roman children who live in Pompeii, and follow their story as disaster strikes the city. We’re also nicely introduced to different features of everyday Roman life: the busy taverns and shops, ships at the harbour bringing goods in and out of the city, the forum where politicians make speeches, the theatre, and even some children’s games – knucklebones! This is all bolstered by the warm illustrations which bring the city to life in characteristically earthy tones. The lively scenes prompted lots of questions: What’s in that big vase? Where are the boats going? What do those letters on the wall mean?
Having the Latin on the walls is a lovely detail – and I was quite intrigued by the name in the picture above, as Junia Procula was actually a real Roman child who died just before her 9th birthday. She lived during the Flavian age (69-96AD) – so the same period as our Pompeiian kiddos – though Junia was in Rome. After her death her father set up an elaborately decorated altar featuring (among many other things) Junia’s portrait, with her tidy little curls:
There’s also a whole dramatic story linked to Junia’s altar, involving a scheming mother who ends up erased and cursed, which you can read more about here. Classics is cool.
Back to our current story: we join Tranio and Livia on a hot August day, when suddenly the ground starts to shake, birds fly in the wrong direction, and huge thick clouds of ash start to descend on the city. Initially the people aren’t worried, but soon enough panic sets in.
The Gentle Mountain isn’t what it seems – Vesuvius is erupting! Tranio and Livia end up escaping by boat just in time – and there’s another grim but authentic touch when the children see people running with ‘pillows on their heads’, a detail we’re told by Pliny the Younger in his own letters about the eruption.
The children get away – phew! – and the story ends with an old man and woman visiting the buried city, wondering if anyone will ever see it again. And we even get a peek under the ground:
Oof! It is quite a sad ending (naturally), and this is the only part my little one really didn’t like – seeing all the buildings and people buried under the ground in the picture – but plenty of reassurances about the city being found again, and that we could even go and visit it some day, helped a lot. I was worried he would find it all a bit too scary, but he asked for it as his bedtime book several days in a row so I guess it wasn’t too bad after all!
This story would work really well as a supplement to KS1/KS2 topics on Romans; the vivid illustrations and dramatic storyline open up all sorts of possibilities for literacy tasks, creative writing prompts, and arts and crafts activities. As usual, we paired it with something hands-on: making – and erupting! – our own volcano, a baking soda + vinegar classic!