ROME – Traditionally, it has been held that the lives of ancient Pompeians were tragically cut short on August 24, 79 AD, when Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fury, choking Pompeii and other towns along its perimeter with volcanic debris.
A study by Italian authors made public on Thursday lends weight to theories that shift the date of the eruption by two months, to the end of October or even the beginning of November. He cites – among other evidence – the discovery during a recent excavation of the site of a charcoal inscription scribbled on a wall on October 17, 79 AD.
“This inscription is certainly dated after August 24,” the date used by generations of scholars, based on an account by Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption, said Giovanni P. Riccardi, associate researcher at the Observatory of Vesuvius. from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the authors of the study. The later dating, he added, confirmed other evidence that has emerged over the years challenging the August dating.
Since 1748, when the first excavations began, the ancient city of Pompeii has captured the popular imagination as a testimony to the arbitrariness of nature and the fragility of humanity.
In their introduction to the study, the scientists note that nearly 2,000 years after the eruption, Pompeii’s lure has inspired movies and TV series; art, including the pop version of Andy Warhol’s “Vesuvius”; and music, like the 2013 hit “Pompeii” by British rock band Bastille.
Over the years, excavations of the buried city have provided insight into the lives of the ancient Romans, and new technologies have offered even more detailed clues about their lives, including their cooking habits.
Research at the site, said Sandro de Vita, a co-author who works at the Vesuvius Observatory, also offered additional clues to later dating, from the discovery of typically autumnal fruits – such as nuts, chestnuts and pomegranates – to already sealed wine. in dolia, or terracotta containers, suggesting that the harvest was over.
Excavations at the site also revealed that braziers had been used at the time of the eruption and that some of the victims were wearing heavy clothing, still visible in the plaster casts. “All of this offers a different interpretation of what Pliny wrote,” he said.
Mr Riccardi noted that there are no original copies of Pliny’s letter and that it only survives through copies made in medieval times, meaning that slightly different versions, with different dates, exist of the same text.
The August 24 dating comes from a copy of Pliny’s letter in the Medicea Laurenziana library in Florence, the oldest known copy. “Just because he’s older, strangely, he’s considered more reliable. But that is certainly not the way to deal with a historical fact,” Mr Riccardi said.
Biagio Giaccio, another co-author from Italy’s National Research Council, said some historians believe that by copying the text, the monks who wrote the Florence version wanted to associate the eruption with a known ancient Roman holiday. under the name of mundus, celebrated on August 15. 24.
The Romans believed that on this day a circular crater leading to the underworld opened up, allowing souls to emerge.
But the charcoal inscription sparked debate when it was found in 2018 on a wall of the so-called House with the Garden, which opened to the public last year.
It was probably scribbled by a worker restoring the villa at the time of the eruption and reads: “XVI K Nov in[d] ulsit pro masumi esurit[ioni]“, which the authors of the study translated as: “On the sixteenth day before the kalends of November, he indulged in food in an immoderate manner. The date is October 17.
“The idea that the disaster happened in the fall is old news, but if they could relate it to other scientific questions about the eruption, it might be interesting,” said Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, in an e-mail.
Other questions about what Vesuvius might be telling us drove the study, said Mario A. Di Vito, another co-author, noting that the question of dating was just one of many questions discussed in the article, published in Earth-Science Reviews.
“We wanted to take stock of all the available knowledge ‘about Vesuvius’ and then raise the open questions that still need to be addressed with further studies,” he said. For example, he said, we need to know more about the seismic activity that took place during the earthquake, as well as “secondary phenomena” like debris flows in nearby towns like Amalfi” which had a huge impact.”
A multidisciplinary team analyzed the eruption “hour by hour”, tracing near and far effects, he said, noting that the study was part of a 2021 project led by the National Institute of Geophysics. which was based on some four decades of research.
And it’s not over yet.
“The question of dating is sensational,” he said. But the article wants to show “there are certainly a lot of open issues that need to be resolved”.