History as Fiction Inspiration

I took my three kids to our local museum today. They were having a family day focusing on a new exhibit that just opened: Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii.  I’ve always had a fascination with Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius, so this was a must see for me.

In the entryway, they had microscopes set up so you could examine Roman coins up close. Another table had the villa in a puzzle format and a volunteer helped the kids use the pieces to design their own villa, talking about the different room and the names for them. A villa, I learned, was a very rich, wealthy house. One of the villas in the exhibit is believed to be Emperor Nero’s second wife’s vacation home.

Ninety-some rooms have been excavated, but the archaeologists believe over 200 rooms existed in the villa.

The exhibit was set up a little like the villa (a small portion of it, anyway). Statues surrounded the fountains as you walked in. Stone centaurs, missing some limbs after 2000 years stood guard in the entry way and a statue of the Venus stood in the center. We peered at various replicas of rooms and the huge jugs used for wine or fish sauce, and lanterns carved with images of various gods and goddess. Pieces of the original walls hung up, colors still vivid after all these years. Spoons, pots, coins, toys filled the cases. Replicas of columns and couches decorated rooms used for dining and resting.

I imagined the men and women, both the wealthy and the slaves, using these items daily. Some, like the lanterns, looked like nothing like our modern lights, but some silver spoons and a beautiful glass pitcher would not have looked out of place on a modern table.

There was a whole case dedicated to the jewelry they found on a number of skeletons discovered in a storeroom at one of the villas, where the slave and rich alike had hidden themselves during the eruption. My daughter and I observed a set of rings, far too small to fit on my fingers, so we concluded that the woman who’d worn those rings must have been much smaller than me.

My favorite was the strongbox, a huge metal box about the size of one of my twins’ cribs, covered all over with patterns and designs of animals and people.

I didn’t get to linger as long as I wanted amid the replicas of the Roman villa, since my 6-year-old’s attention span didn’t allow for it, but I stood a moment in a Roman dining room, looking at a big picture of the bay that the villa overlooked. Sea birds called around me and little fishing boats sailed out on the water.

“Do you think this is what their view looked like as they ate their dinner?” I asked my daughter, my imagination pulling up more details, feeling the wind and smelling the salt air.

She shrugged, and moved onto the kids’ activity of building a Roman column and a fresco. From their stroller, my twins shrieked, “Dinosaur! Dinosaur!” They were ready to move on to the fossils in the other room.

I want to go back without children and linger with a notebook. I want to read all the information. I want to study the model of the Roman villa, examining the design of the rooms that are different from the house I live in. Every artifact in the exhibit makes me want to picture the people who would have been around them daily and try to wrap my brain around what their lives must have been like.

I once heard an author talk about how important it was for authors to read nonfiction. For a writer, the best inspiration can come from real life. Reading is easy, but there’s something extra special about looking at the real things. A simple ceramic cup and dish. A set of dice made from bone. A bracelet engraved with images of a goddess. Thick glass bottles used for perfume. A massive metal strongbox. A drawing of the skeleton of the 20-something-year-old woman, the one who’d worn the gold rings, and who had been in the last stages of pregnancy.

Need more plot fodder? Visit a museum. Listen to the tour guides, read the plaques, examine the artifacts, and let your imagination wander.

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