Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (BOLLI)

Pompeii, Vesuvius, and Romans along the Bay of Naples

Course Number


Study Group Leader (SGL)

Steven Ostrow


This course will take place in a BOLLI classroom (22 person capacity) with a maximum enrollment of 15 to allow for some social distancing. The classroom will be equipped with a HEPA air purifier.

5-Week Course

April 4 - May 9. No Class April 25.


The remains of Roman Pompeii, destroyed in 79 C.E. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, are familiar across the globe. (Hard to count Japan’s Pompeii exhibitions!) Along with its smaller neighbor Herculaneum, in the 18th century Pompeii became the world's earliest archaeological laboratory.  These towns along the Bay of Naples have brought us close to the lives of the Greco-Roman forebears of western civilization. What were the realities of daily life and death? of political wheeling-and-dealing? of literacy, water resources, and a highly diversified economy (from farming to commerce, from laundering to prostitution)? The Vesuvian sites answer these questions more emphatically than anywhere else. Yet despite their familiarity, Pompeii and its neighbors have continued to offer spectacularly unsuspected discoveries: a unique tin-&-bronze-encrusted chariot; a brightly frescoed fast-food shop; and skeletal remains of hundreds of victims huddled together at the coastline. These towns hold long unsolved puzzles and provoke our curiosity with new ones. The very humanity of these ancient “Neapolitans” reminds us how closely connected we still are, two millennia later, even as we are struck by how profoundly different a world we inhabit.  

Chiefly through SGL-illustrated lectures; guided by Mary Beard's iconoclastic book Fires of Vesuvius; and with an optional weekend visit to the MFA's Greco-Roman collection (date TBD), our aims will be to recognize the complexity of this culture; develop a critical eye for distinguishing surface realities from deeper ones; and gauge how far we have "progressed" from Roman times.

Group Leadership Style

More lecture than facilitated discussion.

Course Materials

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard (Harvard U. Press, 2008); still in print (November 2023), widely available in hardcover, paperback, new & used editions (approx. price, $10 to $25); to date no e-book announced. 

Preparation Time

60-70 pages weekly; approx. 2-3 hours.

 Steven Ostrow joined BOLLI in 2019 after a half-century teaching Greek & Roman studies (history, art/archaeology, language/literature). With undergrad and grad degrees from Brown and the University of Michigan, a 1973-1975 fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, and many years' residence in Italy, since 1970 he has led dozens of archaeological study tours across Italy and Greece. After twenty-seven years in the History Faculty of MIT he retired in 2020, following that year’s “MIT-Italy" January program. With this third course as SGL, Steven looks forward to digging deep into Pompeii with BOLLI comrades.