Bringing Pompeii to life: teaching GCSE Classical Civilisation at Cheney

Tags: Pompeii, Classical Civilisation, Living History, GCSE

For the first time in Cheney School history, we have offered GCSE Classical Civilisation to Year Nines this year, as an after school lesson. To our delight, almost 40 students started the course this September, and this term, we have been exploring the ancient city of Pompeii with them. 

Having never taught Pompeii before, I spent much of the summer reading up and thinking of how to design lessons which are lively and accessible for students who are taking this as an extra GCSE at the end of a long day at school. I'm privileged to be delivering these lessons alongside David Gimson - an inspirational History teacher at Cheney, and also the person who made the classics centre possible at Cheney by offering his own classroom as space and supporting the venture at every step.

The lessons started off with introducing students to the notion of a city frozen in time, and how archaeologists might begin to interpret the snapshot evidence before them. We used photographs from modern day Oxford and asked them to imagine what information they might give archaeologists from the future. This produced some really interesting - and sometimes quite surreal - responses. The students were also introduced to a brief history of the city, and given a chance to have a go at translating Oscan script. 

Next week, they drew outlines of Roman houses in the school's extensive outside space - luckily, the early autumn sun was shining for us, and everyone enjoyed chalking the outlines onto the concrete. Many had remembered some of the Roman names for rooms - atrium, cubiculum etc. The groups have been split into five Houses - Vettii, Faun, Tragic Poet, Caecilius, and Julia Felix, and they were then tasked with presenting their houses - in the style of estate agents - to the group. 

In the next lesson, we explored the body casts - how they were created and the very vivid record they present of the disaster. Students were moved by the well-known images of the dog, 

contorted in agony, the people curled up beside one another, and even the remains of bread in ovens that were preserved. They all thought of the stories which might lie behind each body cast.

In the following week, they had the opportunity to visit the lost city just before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Each student was given some Roman coins to spend and then they were shown into the classics centre, which had been transformed into a bustling Pompeian street.

There was a bakery (pistrinum), laundry (fullonica), garum shop (garum was a popular Roman sauce made from rotting fish intestines!), and two bars (one called "ad cucumas" meaning "to the pots"), as well as a gem cutter's workshop and a couple of Romans playing a dice game at the back of the 'popina' (a type of bar that was open late into the night). The classics centre had been decorated with all sorts of graffiti which has been found in Pompeii, so students were able to experience the full effect of the city's streets.

Classics students from Year 11 and 13 generously volunteered to be in costume as Pompeians, and they ran the shops and the bar; two students also acted as Roman men playing a well-loved Roman dice game at the back of one of the bars. We were very grateful indeed to the students who acted in this Pompeian event, which brought the city to life.The following week, the students had the challenge of presenting their own Pompeian business ideas to a Dragon - in this instance George Buchanan of the school's Business Department. Insurance companies and dating agencies were amongst the business ideas presented! 

On Tuesday 4th October, we were then delighted to welcome Dr Virginia Campbell from the University of Oxford to the classics centre, where she talked to Year Nine Classical Civilisation students about graffiti in Pompeii. The students have been learning all about the city of Pompeii and its destruction and preservation due to the eruption in 79AD. Virginia talked about the very large amount of writing which had been found on the site, and the broad range of purposes which these inscriptions had. 

The writing which was painted or drawn (technically called "dipinti") was usually advertisements - often political - "wake up and make Helvus Sabinius aedile!" - but also frequently advertising gladiator fights in the amphitheatre - "twenty pairs of gladiators... regular hunt and awnings". Graffiti (writing which has been scratched or inscribed) ranged from the sorts of scrawling that is still found in towns and cities - "Gaius Pumidius Dipilus was here" to quotes from poetry and even very sophisticated jokes. 

Virginia spoke about how this great quantity of writing which has been preserved - often in "vulgar Latin" (i.e. the common Latin spoken by ordinary people) - might indicate a much larger proportion of the population were literate than is often thought. The knowledge of well-known poetry by the poets Virgil and Ovid is also interesting, and might suggest a rather more learned population than usually assumed. 

She also talked about how the frequency of inscriptions where women are clearly involving themselves in politics, despite not being allowed to vote, has also been surprising. She asked if Ancient Rome had been frozen in time in the way Pompeii has been, would it have been full of inscriptions? 

It was a very engaging and informative talk which everyone really enjoyed, and we were very grateful indeed to her for taking the time to visit the classics centre. We were especially delighted that she was inspired by a student's question to write a blog post about thoughts on Pompeii -

So far, then, the students seem to have been very much enjoying themselves and learning well - next week, they will learn about religious buildings in Pompeii and build a model temple of Apollo, Jupiter and Isis. After half term, they will have a visit from Dr Mark Robinson, from the University of Oxford, who has just returned from excavation work in Pompeii and will be talking about the House of the Gladiators. This will then we followed by a trip to Bath to explore the importance of the Baths to Roman society. 

It's such an exciting experience teaching Pompeii - having never taught it before, and not having learned about it since school (and only having very dim memories of that!), I feel like I've been learning just as much as the students. I have been able to experience the awe and wonder, as well as the story of human tragedy, alongside them. I'm looking forward to the next few weeks as more of the amazing story of this city will unfold.