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Voices From Pompeii

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the December 1872 Sword and Trowel


A RUSH of thought has hurried through our soul while traversing the streets of the long lost city of Pompeii. Worn as its pavements are by the traffic of a thousand chariots in days of yore, it is all silent now, and its temples and palaces echo only to the footfalls of inquisitive visitors, who guess its life from its suggestive relics. The city was not destroyed by a fiery stream of molten lava, as is popularly supposed; but it would seem that first there fell a shower of ashes and cinders, with here and there a huge mass of volcanic matter; and then there followed torrents of liquid mud, which flowed over all and formed over the city a crust, preserving everything that remained from further injury or decay. Had the stream been burning lava, it must have melted down the bronzes, calcined the marbles, and reduced all to one vast heap of molten matter; as it is, the most delicate frescoes remain uninjured, the most minute articles are found in their integrity, and even such readily combustible materials as thread and skeins of silk, are gathered from the ruined dwellings. We have seen a glass jar of oil still retaining its contents, delicate bottles of perfume apparently as fresh as when purchased at the shop, and amphorae of wine, with the age of the vintage as freshly marked thereon, as though but yesterday placed in the cellar. How marvellous does all this seem when we remember that the city was buried in A.D. 79, and, therefore, has lain in its grave for close upon eighteen hundred years.
    Comparatively few human remains have been found in the excavations, for although the inhabitants of Pompeii had but scant warning, it appears that the bulk of the population were, at the time of the eruption, assembled in the great amphitheatre, which is outside the town, and, finding themselves cut off from the rest of the city by the falling ashes, they made their escape from the impending doom. All of them were not, however, so fortunate, for some six hundred skeletons have been exhumed, and as yet a bare half of the city has been uncovered. In the ear of our imagination have sounded voices from the dead in Pompeii, and in a hurried moment we sit down to record the impressions they have made.
    The full chorus of the disinterred chants one solemn line, "Be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh." To many in that fair abode of luxury and vice the outbreak of Vesuvius appeared to be the end of all things. When the darkness might be felt settled down upon them; when the earth rumbled and reeled beneath them; when the groaning waves of the tortured sea foamed beyond them; when the scorching glare of vivid lightnings flashed above them, and huge rocks blazing and hissing with fire fell all around them; they believed that the world's death had come,—and so, indeed, in a manner it had come to them, but in a fuller and truer sense it hastens on for us! Even now, while the ink is flowing from our pen, the Lord may be on his way, and may suddenly appear. In Pompeii's last tremendous hour the bread was in the oven, but the baker never saw it taken from it; the meat was seething in the pot never to be eaten; the slave was at the mill, the prisoner in the dungeon, the traveler at the inn, the money dealer in his treasury, but none of these saw aught of their labors, their pains, their pleasures, or their profits again. The burning dust fell over all, the poisonous vapours sought out every crevice, and the ocean of mud buried inhabitant and habitation, worshipper and temple, worker and all that he had wrought! Should a sudden overthrow come upon us also, are we ready? Could we welcome the descending Lord, and feel that for us his coming with clouds to recompense justice would be a joyful appearing, to be welcomed with exulting acclamation? The question is too important to be dismissed until honestly answered may sincerity direct the examination it suggests.
    A very large proportion of the dead were discovered in the barracks; thirty-four were found together, beyond all doubt the guard called out for the fatal night discipline must have been powerful indeed to have kept men to their duty at such a time, especially when they were not far from the city gate. It would seem that the officers' wives and children shared in the same spirit, and remained with the band, and with them, those ever faithful, friends of man, the dogs who had fed beneath their table. Soldiers are expected to endure hardness, and these Roman legionaries discharged their trust to the last. Christians are called soldiers of Christ, shall they be less firm, less bravely obedient, even unto death? Whoever flees in the evil day, a Christian must not. His it is to be at his post at all hazards, and faithless never. Christian and coward, saint and deserter, are words as much opposed as heaven and hell. Every one has heard of the lone soldier at the Herculaneum gate of Pompeii, who stepped under an arch to shelter himself from the hot ashes, and there remained close by the gate which he was set to guard, and was found there spear in hand, faithful unto death, His martial voice rings in our ear, and bids us, even if alone, abide in our appointed place come what may. Ours it is not to consult personal ease or safety, but to abide where the great Lord of all has marked our station till he himself shall release us from it. Like the dove which was found sitting upon her nest in the garden of Diomed, if we are entrusted with the care of others we must sooner perish than forsake our charge. If Jesus has said "feed my lambs," we must not flee when the wolf cometh, but must, under evil report and good report, feed the flock of God which he hath purchased with his own blood.
    One of the first buildings seen by the traveler upon entering the excavations, us the villa whose owner is supposed to have been named Diomed, because a tomb on the opposite side of the road bears that name. in the ample cellars of this house seventeen persons were found huddled in a corner, who from their ornaments and dress are believed to have been females, and some of them the ladies of the house. Where was the father, the master, the husband of the family? Why did he not form the center of the group, and prove the mainstay of the trembler in their hour of horror? A skeleton, believed to be that of the master of the house, was found near the garden gate, with the key of his villa firmly grasped in his hand; and behind him was an attendant with one hundred pieces of money in his girdle. What was he about to do? He was doubtless fleeing for his life and perished in the attempt: but why escape alone? It, would have been useless to carry the key if the door remained unlocked. Had he then fastened in his family and left them all to die? Let us not, judge even the dead severely perhaps the timid females would not venture with him, and he went to discover for them a way of escape. The taking of a considerable sum of money with him does not give much countenance to the theory, but this much is clear,—for some reason or other the strong man left his household behind him and sought safety for himself: meanwhile, outside his door, on the other side of the road, a lady stumbled through the heaps of small loose pumice stones which filled the roadway, and sought a shelter under the vault of the hemicycle where many a traveler had rested ere he entered the splendid city of pomps. She was not alone, but had two children clinging to her garments, and she carried another at her breast. Did she sever herself from the little ones? Did self-preservation drive her to drop her helpless burden? No; folded in each other's arms they fell into their last sleep, the mother still cherishing in death the children, about whose necks her love had hung pearls and finest gold while yet their days were happy. "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion upon the son of her womb?" Man is too often hard and selfish, but a mother's heart is tender, and her love makes sacrifices and counts them sweet.
    In the street of abundance, in the house of a money-changer, in a dark vault-like room at the rear of the building, lies skeleton upon a heap of rubbish, with outstretched arms and clutching fingers, as if he had been grasping at earth with his last life-throb. Near him the diggers found some 400 coins, mostly of silver, with quite a little fortune in rings and cameos. Was he a thief, and were these the spoils he had gathered and purchased with his life? Was he a money-lender, and were these his capital and his securities for loans? No man can answer these questions, but the blending together of death and gold in one story is no new thing; it is, indeed, but another among a thousand instances in which death has slain men with gilded darts. In another place was found an adventurous pilferer, who, after the destruction of the city, had marked the spot where stood a rich man's house, had burrowed down into it, and had met his end through the falling in of the earth upon him. He digged for treasure, and knew not that he had prepared his grave; fit warning to other earthworms among men that they also perish not in their grovellings, though it is to be feared the admonition is seldom heeded, and men continue to barter heaven for yellow clay. Less ignobly died the prisoners in their cells, and the soldiers in their stocks, for they were bound by no voluntary fetters, and may have been free in spirit while they lay in durance. Avarice both imprisons and degrades.
    The skeleton in the large room behind the Temple of Isis reveals the overpowering energy of even a base animal appetite, for there it was found with bones of chickens, eggshells, fishbones, bread, wine, and a garland of flowers around it. He must have been a rare feeder who could find stomach for his meat amid such convulsions of nature; his worship of his belly had furnished him with a courage which far nobler devotions have not excelled. It shows how sottish he becomes who lives to eat instead of eating to live; he may one day die by his eating, and go from the banquets of Bacchus to the tortures of Tophet. Let all men beware of the tyranny of carnal passions, for no despots are so exacting as the appetites of the flesh. Suicide by one's own teeth is the meanest of deaths, and involves a man in everlasting contempt; the cruelest of tyrants have not demanded this of their victims. By all that we value for time and for eternity, let us conquer fleshly appetites lest they conquer us.
    Time would fail us to tell of the wretch who left his bones in a temple with all the evidence of his sacrilege about him. Will a man rob God? How will it fare with him should he perish in the act? Neither can we speak much of the gigantic personage, who with an axe had pierced a way through two walls of the temple of Isis in his efforts to escape from the all-surrounding death. He at least was no sluggard or foolhardy glutton. He perished, but he had made desperate efforts to be saved; many also will share this fate, in a spiritual sense, if they rely upon their own strength; but, blessed be God, none shall ever be left to die, who labor against sin, trusting in the merits of the Redeemer. Vain also would it be to conjecture who was the owner of that remarkable brain that once filled that skull of striking conformation, which has excited the speculations of so many phrenologists. He whose eyes looked oat from under that overhanging brow was crushed beneath a falling column, literally severed in twain by the prostrate mass. Had he lived and thought for God, for truth, for man? Or was he some arch deceiver, a deluder of the multitude? Echo alone answers to our enquiries, and she by mocking them. The tomb is silent, and so also are those to whom sepulcher is denied. But one thing is clear to the most superficial glance: these skeletons are the petrifactions of vitality, the abiding record of life's latest moment. As in the forum remain the half-finished columns, with the last mark of the sculptor's hand; as in the chambers of the household remain the essences and rouge of ill-fated beauty; as in the bath remains the strigil, and in the hall the treasure-casket; so in the stone-like relics of the departed Pompeiians abide the records of their concluding acts; they are the finis of their own history, observed by all men. Behold, at this hour our moral history is being preserved for eternity; processes are at work which will perpetuate our every act, and word, and thought; not alone the last line, but every word and letter of our actual history is being stereotyped for the world's perusal in the day which shall, reveal the secrets of men. We are not writing upon the water, but carving upon imperishable material—the chapters of our history are graven with an iron pen and lead in the rocks for ever.
    Time and thought alike fail us just now: we have indicated a subject worthy of an abler pen, and we have done more if we have also suggested to our readers a worthy theme for thought.

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