Book Lover

Published on 4 May 2021 03:02 PM
By Mary Lindberg
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In a series of poems I try to give voices to people destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The goal is to capture the exact moment of life before eruptions in Pompeii, Herculaneum and seaside villas such as Oplontis. Characters and some places are imagined. What were individuals doing before their lives were wiped out — unlived? What did they say? I try to cover most classes: Roman citizens, slaves, freedmen, women, children. My objective is to make readers “hear” their voices, last earthly concerns — to humanize plaster bodies behind glass.

Book Lover focuses on Arisoto, a fictitious freed slave hired by his former master in the villa’s library to maintain ancient scrolls. When the shaking begins, Arisoto is at work. His employer has requested a rare seal, and he holds the key to where it is kept when the walls start to shake. He still holds that key twenty centuries later, a testament to his perseverance. His love of books, still alive today, is another theme bringing together history and archaeology.


Herculaneum, Italy, 79 A.D. and later

The speaker Arisoto is a young slave, born in in 49 A.D.
in Antony Maximus Fronto’s villa in the city of
Herculaneum. Antony freed him at age 30, hired him
to keep Greek, Roman philosophy scrolls free
from humidity, to copy ancient texts in the villa’s library.

One day Antony requested a rare imperial seal from
the library. As I looked for the key, the floor shook,
walls shivered. Was it an earthquake?
I fell back, heard a loud crack, drumming overhead,
humming hiss. Sliding rolls of papyrus smothered me.

I bent over a see-sawing floor, crab-walked to the door.
Outside, villa guards thundered: Run to the sea!
Prickly pumice burying the world alive. People tried
to run through knee-deep scree. Not a quake.

Antony’s family rushed out, we tied pillows on their
heads, led them through curtains of black hail.
Amid screams, moans, neighing of frightened horses —
a dark dissonance. Endless thick showers, sharp tuff.
Panic cries: Children? Julius! Julia! Where are you?

Suddenly stone showers ceased. A sunless, eerie cavern
of quiet. No one could have imagined what happened later.
During that quiet night, Vesuvius would ignite lava flows
hot enough to boil our insides at Aurora’s rise. I wept.

I wept for my family, whom I never found, but more for
the countless words of thinkers who tried to understand
human nature, their knowledge, discoveries — gone. Forever.
I yearned to embrace all the library’s papyrus in my arms.

They found him under four layers of rubble, clutching a
key. Archeologists scrutinize him like a rare scroll,
the way he inspected new arrivals at the villa’s library.


Cover Image by Christopher Ott, via

Masthead Image Eruption of Vesuvius - Pierre-Jacques Volaire via Wikimedia