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One of Pompeii’s greatest mysteries may have been solved

Ciro DeLuca

In 1987, groups of mysterious graffiti found on the walls of the Pompeii theater tunnel were published in an academic journal. They didn’t make much noise. After all, next to the brightly colored and pornographic frescoes of the brothels of the tragic city and the remains of people and animals frozen in time and volcanic ash, the inscriptions seem almost boring. But they might actually be Pompeii’s best-kept secret and one of its greatest mysteries.

These graffiti were written in an obscure form of Old Arabic otherwise completely unknown in the Western Mediterranean. For nearly 35 years, the inscriptions have been a mystery: who wrote them? And frankly, what are they doing there? A new article published last month promises to unlock their secrets.

Part of the reason for the neglect of these unique inscriptions is the mystery surrounding their origins. They are written in Safaitic, a South Semitic script that records a dialect of Old Arabic. Scholars have plenty of Safaitic inscriptions – more than 34,000 were written between the first century BC and the fourth century AD – but they are found in Ḥarrah, the black desert that stretches from southern Syria to northeast of Jordan and north of Saudi Arabia. Writing was used by the nomads who populated the region and raised camels, sheep and goats. Before the Pompeian discovery, Safaitic had never been seen in the western Mediterranean and even less in the Italian peninsula. Outside of the “volcanic stuff” (the Black Desert is so called because it’s made of basalt), it’s hard to see what Pompeii and the Ḥarrah have in common.

The inscriptions – 11 in total – were found engraved on the north wall of the passage (known as the Theater Tunnel) that connects the ancient theater complex to the Via Stabiana, one of the main roads that led to the inside and outside the city. They were first noted down in the 19th century, but they remained undeciphered until Jacqueline Calzini Gysens published an edition in 1987. (Her edition identified nine texts, but later analysis redivided the archaeological evidence in eleven separate examples.) Since then and apart from their inclusion in the online Corpus of Ancient North African Inscriptions, they have hardly been studied.

A new article, published in the latest issue of the prestigious Journal of Roman Studies by Kyle Helms, professor of classics at St. Olaf College, offers a brilliant solution. Until now, the working hypothesis of their existence was long-distance trading. The explanation rings true and is certainly believable. But it’s as simple as it is logical: if you find something that doesn’t belong in the ancient world, it must have been brought there from elsewhere. But the ‘trade’ explanation didn’t really give us much argument, especially, as Helms notes, when there is no evidence ‘of nomadic involvement in trade at Puteoli’ . [the port that served Pompeii] – or, indeed, with commerce of any kind.

Clearly the graffiti was written by nomads from Ḥarrah, the real question then is, why were they in Pompeii? Helms argues that these nomads had been incorporated into the Roman army and had come to Italy with the Legio III Gallica – the third Gallic legion – during the civil war of 69 AD

The reason for the association is partly contextual. The safaitic graffiti are not alone; they are nestled among the crowd of inscriptions that adorn the wall of the theater. The inscriptions there are of a diverse group: images of boats, animals and gladiators jostle for position alongside bluster of group sex, prayers to Venus and more mundane affirmations of presence. Of this last category, two, written by Roman soldiers and located close to the Safaitic inscriptions, struck Helms as particularly suggestive. These pithy examples note that “the men of the Third were there” and send their regrets (“farewell, Rufa, since you suck well”) and their best wishes (“farewell, spade”) to the inhabitants of the city.

The men of the Third have long been considered soldiers of another Third Legion of Rome. There was more than one Third Legion in the army but, according to the historian Tacitus, legion III Gallic was stationed in Capua in the last months of 69 and the first days of 70 AD. As no other Third Legion is known to have been around at the time, this was probably the window of opportunity for these true poets to leave their marks on the hallway wall.

This is crucial, writes Helms, because III Gallica arrived in Italy after spending nearly a century in Syria, “the distant homeland of safaitic writers”. They were called to Italy when they marched in support of the future Emperor Vespasian, who succeeded in wresting power from his predecessor Vitellius. They spent some time in cantonment in Capua, at the expense of the local aristocrats who had supported Vitellius rather than Vespasian. They were eventually sent home in 70.

Helms identifies two ways in which the nomads could have entered the Third Gallic Legion: First, during this period the Roman legions became more provincial and increasingly relied on the local population. A legion with historical ties to Syria would therefore have been made up of a large number of Syrian recruits. This is clear from Tacitus himself who refers to Third Estate men observing Syrian religious customs. Alternatively, it is possible that safaitic writers were auxiliaries. It was unusual to move auxiliary troops, but times of crisis – like the Civil War in 69 – were the kind of occasions when it might have happened.

Other scholars agree that there is evidence that the Roman army recruited nomads as auxiliaries. In his work, Michael McDonald, a prominent scholar of inscriptions in Ḥarrah, suggested that the nomads might have been incorporated into the army, perhaps into a special “ethnic unit”. It is difficult to link evidence of graffiti from the Ḥarrah to AD 69 in particular, but there is, writes Professor Ahmad Al-Jallad, “concrete evidence of the activities of Roman auxiliary military units from the nomadic tribes of the Ḥarrah” .

If Helms is right and presents a compelling case, what does that mean? Why did these men (we know their names – Tm, Md and Ṣhb – but Safaitic does not preserve vowels, so we cannot vocalize them with certainty) write their names in the hallway of the theatre? Helms told me we’ll never know for sure “but there are several possibilities. It is easy to imagine, for example, that they were able to express a certain pride in their identities and their language… perhaps the authors of the Safaitic wanted to participate in the same informal writing on the walls as their comrades [from the Third]– but, again, they did it in their own language and in their own script.

It is not necessarily an adaptation of Roman customs. What is striking is that as foreign as the streets of Pompeii would have seemed to these soldiers, the heavily inscribed walls of the city, says Helms “might have seemed familiar to those visitors from far, far away. They might not have understood all the Latin or Greek on the walls there (although there is growing evidence of bilingualism in the Ḥarrah) – but they would have understood the graffiti writing as a practice. Graffiti is therefore a cross-cultural practice in which everyone, including foreigners, can engage, connect and add their own contributions. The full range of multicultural Pompeian graffiti (and that of nearby Herculaneum) can be viewed online at the Ancient Graffiti Project (ancientgraffiti.org), led by Professor Rebecca Benefiel of Washington and Lee University.

Helms’ work is important for the way it reminds us of both the vastness of the Roman world and its connections. Helms told me, “I still think it’s just amazing that one day in late December 69 CE in southern Italy you could hear Arabic being spoken as you walked to the theater!” It’s just amazing! Safaitic graffiti is also a good reminder that the Roman army could have looked a lot like his empire.

It is not because the nomads served in the army that they gave up their own language and traditions. Marking their names in their own language on the walls of cosmopolitan Pompeii might well have been a point of pride. The power of the Roman Empire expressed through architecture, propaganda, violence and spectacle neither swallows nor subsumes the traditions of those caught up in its mechanics. On the contrary, the walls of Pompeii become the canvas for the inscription of ethnically and linguistically diverse expressions of identity.

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