Seen it before? Yes, mostly, but each time there’s something different and old favourites are there for the best of reasons. The ‘mostly’ has been to London, and may well have been seen at Pompeii itself; nonetheless familiarity offers the possibility of new insights, in part because items not previously seen change the context for comparison.
The Ashmolean exhibition has been beautifully mounted, although some of the labels have been amended by the donor, and the displays are as immersive as possible without going to the ancient site. As in the London exhibition there is a recreation of town and domestic life, in particular the triclinium or dining room of the title. Sculptures, copied from Greek originals but showing a life of their own, demonstrate the skill and humanity of the artists. They may perhaps have been Greek slaves. Table furnishings offer an insight into the elegance of Pompeian family life and show that provincials could stand comparison with metropolitan Romans. They were probably less brutish, being at least partly Greek. The Campania region was known as Magna Graecia after all.
A special treat was finding items from an even further provincial region, Britannia. There was a splendid set of pewter tableware as well as some memorial stones. In these days of Brexit it is worth remembering that the Romans came here in pursuit of Gaulish or French Celts who had taken refuge with their British relatives, and that the European union that ensued continued for four centuries not four decades.
Gifts to us from that period appear in the exhibition: various herbs, fruits and spices, oils, ways of preserving and preparing food and, of course, wine. Then too recycling was important: the wine containers were reused in burials, among other employments. Beliefs influenced or replaced previous forms of worship; not least, as Professor Mary Beard is always delighted to remind us, the Romans brought their penchant for indecent images and insults. All are there to see in a splendid, entertaining and scholarly display.