Did Pliny Get It Wrong? Inscription Points to a Later Date for the Destruction of Pompeii
The Ministry of Culture in Italy have issued an extraordinary statement on Pompeii. A new discovery is fiercely challenging the timing of the obliteration of the Roman city, one that has been generally accepted for centuries due to the description of the event provided by an eye witness. The discovery this week indicates that the event must have occurred at a later date.
The story of Pompeii is well known, and it has been recounted in countless books and movies. In 79 AD the city and the nearby town of Herculaneum were virtually annihilated in a volcanic eruption. Pompeii was buried under up to 60 feet (20 meters) of ash and pumice. Unknown thousands died in the destruction of the town. Such was the destruction that Pompeii was forgotten, even by those who lived in the region.
The inscription found in the ‘House of the Garden’ in Regio V of Pompeii. (Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompei)
Dating the Destruction of Pompeii
It was generally accepted by researchers and historians that the disaster happened on the 24 th of August or XXIV Augustum in the contemporary Latin calendar. The writings of Pliny the Elder, who has left us a description of the destruction of the city gave the date of the eruption of Vesuvius in August. In his writings, he states that he sailed a ship to the city in order to rescue people. However, the date of August 24 was not unchallenged as some of the archaeological evidence, especially the finding of pomegranates, would suggest that the eruption destroyed Pompeii later in the year 79 AD.
‘House of the Garden’ in Regio V of Pompeii. (Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompei)
Now, archaeologists have made a remarkable discovery while excavating a villa, which is well-known for the quality of its mosaics. According to the Daily Telegraph, ‘On the walls of the atrium and corridor of the villa, there is a notable quantity of graffiti’. There are several pieces of charcoal writing that are mostly of a ribald nature.
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The charcoal writing found on the Pompeii wall: XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsitpro masumis esurit[ioni] or ‘the sixteenth day prior to the Calends of November’. (Image: Pompeii Parco Archeologico)
The Inscription in the Villa
Among all the graffiti there is one important inscription. The Ministry of Culture has stated that it reads, ‘XVI K NOV’. This is in Latin the 16 th day before the beginning of November, according to the Roman calendar. This would indicate that the inscription was made in the modern calendar on October 17. This is much later than the date of August 24 th that was provided by Pliny. Therefore, Pompeii could not have been destroyed on the date that is given in the history books and in the letters of the Roman author, but many weeks later.
The identity of the person who made the inscription is not known. The site of the engraving is in a villa, known as “The House of the Garden”, that had only recently been restored, with work continuing in this room. A Ministry of Culture statement explained:
The inscription appears in a room of the house which was undergoing refurbishment, while the rest of the rooms had already been completed; works must therefore have been ongoing at the time of the eruption.
There is some speculation that a builder or architect who was working on the building made the inscription, in order to record his work. The inscription like the villa somehow survived the destruction and it was buried under ash for nearly two millennia. The perishability of the material used to make the inscription (ie. charcoal) led to the conclusion that it must have been written shortly before the eruption.
“since it was done in fragile and evanescent charcoal, which could not have been able to last long, it is highly probable that it can be dated to the October of AD 79, and more precisely to a week prior to the great catastrophe”
This puts the date of the eruption date at around October 24. This discovery along with the remnants of autumnal crops and fruits have persuaded many experts that the date of the eruption of Vesuvius needs to be changed.
The room where the inscription has been found. (Image: Parco Archeologico di Pompei)
The new date for the eruption of Vesuvius
So, when did Vesuvius destroy Pompeii and the surrounding areas? Now many believe based on the inscription and the fruits that were previously discovered that it occurred in late October. The Guardian reports that, “Today, with much humility, perhaps we will rewrite the history books because we date the eruption to the second half of October”. According to the Daily Telegraph, some ‘experts now believe it occurred on October 24’.
The discovery of the inscription shows that long-held views and facts in archaeology can be challenged. It is also allowing us to better picture the final days of Pompeii. The inscription will also raise concerns over the accuracy of the writings of Pliny the Elder, who has been for centuries regarded as a reliable source on Roman history and society.
Top image: Venus depicted in a painting at the House of the Garden, where the inscription evidencing a new destruction of Pompeii date has been found. Source: Parco Archeologico di Pompei
By Ed Whelan