Cities in Dust by Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees

You run… smoke fills your lungs… you run some more… eyes sting… the pain… others run in every different direction… you can’t breath… it’s complete chaos… you heard a boom that sounded like the earth cracked in half… then…

Hold on now… let’s go back a couple of hours and tell this story from the beginning.

You wake up as the sun comes up as almost everyone else does in your town. As you stretch and look out your window you can see the great mountains to the northwest. It’s approaching fall and the leaves of the trees are changing. The mountains looks like a painting… a mural, a massive mural. You can’t believe the beauty of this town. You haven’t been here long and it still amazes you.

The smell of the sea that just lies west of your house reminds you of your livelihood. The sea brought you here, the port, the docks. You work on the docks as a dock manager. It’s not a great job but it keeps you from the farming of your ancestors. It affords you and your small family enough for a small home.

The city is coming alive around you, you don’t have to strain to hear people moving about. Wheels are turning on the paved roads outside and you can hear the sounds of children playing. After getting dressed you sit down at the table with your wife and two kids for a quick breakfast. Most days you would just have some bread but today was special and you had some cheese and olives. There is going to be a big festival tonight. You dip your bread in some wine to soften it up. It tastes better with the wine. It’s unfortunate that you only have the wine on special occasions. As you leave your home, your children run to you to say goodbye. You tell them you will see them later.

You walk down to the dock to meet ships that are arriving today. Your boss owns the ships and you manage the slaves that unload the ships. The ships bring olive oil, pottery, and all other manner of goods from the empire. You think about the celebration that is going to happen tonight. You are ready for the gladiatorial fights that will happen at the amphitheater. You daydream about Tetraites, your favorite Gladiator. Unfortunately he isn’t fighting tonight.

Your boss claps his hands in front of your face, you break out of your daydream. You immediately start shouting orders to the slaves…. BOOM!

You stagger as the the earth shakes under you. Earthquakes aren’t rare here, in fact they happen quite frequently but this one seems even larger than normal. As you regain your balance you look to the mountains northwest of here and you see Vesuvius shooting molten rock, pulverized pumice, and hot ash into the sky.

We are going to step back from the story here and put some numbers to the eruption of Vesuvius. Super-heated volcanic fragments called tephra and gases were shot to a height of 21 miles or 33 kilometers. The molten rock, pulverized pumice, and hot ash were ejected at 1.5 million tons per second, releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’m excited about this post. We will discuss the Siouxsie and the Banshees song Cities In Dust. Cities In Dust is about the Mount Vesuvius volcano eruption as you have probably already gathered. The eruption happened in September or October of 79AD. Most people believe it was in October now whereas previously people thought it was in September. As a little aside, have you ever wondered why October with the prefix Octo, which means eight, is our tenth month and September with the prefix Sept which means seven is our ninth month. The Roman calendar, or fasti, originally only had ten months. They started their calendar in March and ended it in December, there were no months for January and February. You could do a whole podcast on the different Roman calendars and the iterations of it. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated and I’m happy we have our current system.

Let’s learn a little about the history of Siouxsie and the Banshees. They were a British rock band formed in London in 1976. Susan Janet Ballion who is known professionally as Siouxsie Sioux was born in London, England in 1957. Siouxsie and the Banshees were active from 1976 to 1996, they released 11 albums and several UK top 20 singles and one Billboard Top 25 hit, Kiss Them for Me.

Cities in Dust is not one of the songs that made it big but it’s a song I enjoy. It sounds 80s as it should since it was released in 1985 off of their seventh album, Tinderbox. Now let’s see some of the lyrics of the song

Water was running, children were running

You were running out of time

Under the mountain, a golden fountain

Were you praying at the Lares shrine?

Here Sioux is talking about under the mountain meaning Mount Vesuvius and the golden fountain is the molten rock that spews out of the eruption. I love the next line because it asks if the Romans of Pompeii were praying to the Lares. Lares are guardian deities who were believed to observe, protect, and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location. Typical Roman household would’ve owned at least one protective Lares-figure. The figure would be housed in a shrine. The figures would’ve been placed at the table during family meals and banquets. Lares played a huge role in the lives of Romans.

Then we get to the part of the song that I told the story of…

Hot and burning in your nostrils

Pouring down your gaping mouth

Your molten bodies, blanket of cinders

caught in the throes, and

Whoa oh - oh your city lies in dust, my friend

Oh - oh your city lies in dust, my friend

Oh - oh your city lies in dust, my friend

Oh - oh your city lies in dust, my friend

As you can imagine as this was happening people were panicking and running through the streets. Our character was trying to get back home to his wife and kids and get them out. The dock he worked on was close to his house so, in theory, he could have made it. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius lasted a couple of days and most of the almost 20,000 inhabitants of Pompeii made it out alive but there were thousands that didn’t as described by the song… you molten bodies, blanket of cinders.

Pompeii, though destroyed, by Mount Vesuvius is really still alive today…

We found you hiding, we found you lying

Choking on the dirt and sand

Your former glories, and all the stories

Dragged and washed with eager hands

The “we” in this line is referencing the people of the present, the archaeologists that discovered the ruins of Pompeii and the people that were encased in the ashes of Mount Vesuvius. The former glories, and all the stories line refers to the excavations themselves and what has been found. Dragged and washed with eager hands is talking about how the archeologists sort and sift and clean all the artifacts left behind.

Although Pompeii was buried under ash and left for dead, it is very much alive today. A lot of what we know about how Roman towns look come straight from Pompeii (and Herculaneum, another town that was “destroyed” during the eruption).

When you think of Roman historical buildings or statues you typically think of white or gray. Most of the buildings and statues have been white washed by erosion but Rome was vibrant, Rome was colorful. Rome was not boring as you might think when looking at surviving buildings. Do yourself a favor and search Pompeii images in your search engine of choice and take a look at the splendor of the city. I, unfortunately, can only look at pictures because I have never been there but the pictures really do tell a story. Let me warn you though, the phallus will show up in these pictures so be prepared. You would think you were probably in a fairly modern city walking the streets of Pompeii. There are surviving restaurants and street vendors but unlike most modern cities there are also stone penises almost everywhere. They are hiding on the roads, adorning the walls, and hanging above doorways and ovens.

When Pompeii was first excavated and people were first allowed to tour the city all of the phalluses were covered up or hidden and your average people didn’t know, until much later, that these phalluses existed everywhere.

Pompeii is still being actively excavated today and the archaeologists are still uncovering secrets, a ceremonial chariot was unveiled that was found in 2018. This carriage was likely used in festivities and parades. It probably would’ve been used in the celebration that our character is going to but we will never know.

A couple friends of mine that I talked to went to Pompeii a few years back. They actually went there accidentally because of a mix up while booking their vacation. Neither one of them knew what Pompeii was but both said it might’ve been the highlight of their trip.

Due to a complete disaster we have a clearer understanding of people that lived almost 2000 years ago. I am completely fascinated by the Romans and Pompeii allows me to step back and see what living in a Roman town would’ve really been like.

Contact Ronnie on any of the following:

All content ©2024 Ronnie Lutes