It seems unlikely that the graffiti you see around today will be of much use to the historians of the future. And, of course, we don’t know whether the street art that graces our towns and cities will even survive for centuries to come. That’s not an impossible prospect, though, if a find made in Italy in 2018 is anything to go by. And after uncovering the graffiti, archaeologists at the location noticed that the daubings appeared to overturn what we thought we knew about the eruption in Pompeii.
Pompeii itself is perhaps among the most famous ancient Roman cities. Situated near the Bay of Naples in Italy, the locale is overlooked by Mount Vesuvius. And it was the almighty eruption of this volcano in 79 A.D. that has helped to cement Pompeii’s place in the history books.
Prior to that devastating eruption, however, Pompeii is thought to have been a thriving city of around 20,000 people. In fact, the locale had long been a popular vacation spot for wealthy families from across Rome. Accordingly, then, Pompeii was made up of elegant villas and paved streets where visitors could relax within a range of amenities.
Still, life in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius was an ominous affair. And the volcano – which is thought to be many thousands of years old – had a fearsome reputation. Indeed, it had been intermittently spouting lava for generations prior to 79 A.D. One particularly explosive eruption came, however, in around 1780 B.C.
It was then, you see, that Mount Vesuvius detonated millions of tons of ash, rocks and lava 22 miles into the atmosphere. And, alarmingly, it’s thought that the resulting debris demolished every settlement within a 15-mile radius. Nevertheless, life in that sunny part of Italy proved too tempting to resist, and so many people flocked to the region even after that devastating episode.
Still, in the years leading up to the eruption that destroyed Pompeii, there were apparently signs of the catastrophe that awaited. In particular, a huge earthquake that occurred in the region in 63 A.D. is now reckoned to have signaled the inevitable danger. But, regardless, people were seemingly drawn to the area anyway, and the population continued to boom.
Then, just 16 years after that foreboding tremor, Mount Vesuvius erupted once more. And, this time, volcanic materials were sent soaring so high that they could apparently be seen several hundred miles away. Indeed, one of the most enduring accounts of the eruption comes from the writer Pliny the Younger – and he watched the whole thing unfold from a distance.
In a letter to his friend in the years after the eruption, Pliny described “a cloud of unusual size and appearance.” He added that the smoke resembled a pine tree, “for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches… In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty.”
Meanwhile, in the days that followed the initial eruption, the masses of rock Vesuvius had emitted began to rain down. Pliny himself detailed the dreadful phenomenon in a different letter, explaining, “A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.”
Continuing his vivid account, Pliny added, “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants and the shouting of men. Some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices… There were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying.”
And Pliny revealed, too, the sense of panic that he had encountered. “Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore,” he wrote. “I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me – and I with it.”
Yet even in these desperate moments, there was still time to flee the wrath of Vesuvius. Ultimately, though, conditions grew worse; the air became so thick with ash, in fact, that it became a struggle to breathe. And the final blow came with a pyroclastic surge – a rapid release of toxic gas and fragmentized rock that rushed down the mountain and buried Pompeii.
Today, historians believe that 2,000 people lost their lives in the wake of the eruption. Pompeii itself, meanwhile, laid buried some 20 feet below the ground and was forgotten for centuries. Then in 1748 the city was discovered again. And as Pompeii was excavated, it became evident that the ashes that had caused its downfall had also preserved the location for centuries.
Thanks to this extraordinary form of natural conservation, then, archaeologists were provided with a unique insight into the Roman way of life. Pompeii had once boasted well-preserved buildings, paved streets and works of art, it seemed; everyday items such as bread and jars of fruit were also found intact. But among the most fascinating – and harrowing – discoveries were the remains of the city’s former inhabitants.
While excavating Pompeii, archaeologists would occasionally find gaps in the ash. And in the 1860s one Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that these holes had been left after the bodies of those who had perished had decomposed. It was then that he had a masterstroke: by forcing plaster into the apertures, exact models of these people in their final moments could be created.
All in all, the remains of Pompeii have proved invaluable in understanding Roman life at that time. In particular, the city’s level of preservation has helped give us excellent insights into both that area of Italy and the people who once existed there. It may come as little surprise, then, that Pompeii was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.
But perhaps among the most enlightening finds at Pompeii is the graffiti that reveals the broadly forgotten language of Vulgar Latin. Spoken colloquially, the dialect is said to have been less standardized than Classical Latin. What’s more, Vulgar Latin is actually thought to be at the root of modern languages such as Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.
Yet while the sheer amount of graffiti in Pompeii was noticed from the off, archaeologists didn’t necessarily rush to analyze the daubings. Indeed, it seems that the archaeological community once took a stance that the study of the city’s elite should be given priority. And the elite, it was assumed, were not those who would willingly deface walls.
However, this notion appears to be rather outdated. Indeed, when it came to graffiti in Pompeii, archaeologist Rebecca Benefiel has revealed that “everyone was doing it.” In 2010 Benefiel explained to Smithsonian that she had counted 85 scribblings in one of Pompeii’s elite homes alone. A number of these were greetings, while others were playful takes on poems of the day.
Nowadays, then, historians also examine graffiti to learn more about those who came from more marginalized groups. “Graffiti is often produced very spontaneously, with less thought than Virgil or the epic poetry,” Claire Taylor – who teaches Greek history at Ireland’s Trinity College – told Smithsonian. “It gives us a different picture of ancient society.”
And from her own studies on Pompeii’s graffiti, Benefiel has discovered that Emperor Nero was probably more well liked than was previously thought. It seems, though, that his popularity took a nose-dive after he kicked his wife, who was pregnant at the time. But perhaps Benefiel’s most surprising discovery has been how the Romans seemingly used graffiti to spread joy.
“[Pompeii’s inhabitants] were much nicer in their graffiti than we are,” Benefiel revealed in her interview with Smithsonian. “There are lots of pairings with the word ‘felicter,’ which means ‘happily.’ When you pair it with someone’s name, it means you’re hoping things go well for that person. There [is] lots of graffiti that [says] ‘Felicter Pompeii,’ wishing the whole town well.”
Thanks to archaeologists such as Benefiel, then, graffiti has taught us yet more about the Romans. And, in fact, renewed excavation attempts in 2018 have actually extended our understanding of Pompeii even further. During that year, you see, an etching was uncovered that may completely change the way we think about the city’s fiery demise.
The discovery occurred when a team of investigators were working in the Regio V section of Pompeii. And inside a room located in the area, the group found a charcoal scrawl on the wall. Fascinatingly, experts believe that the inscription was made by a person who was helping to renovate the home at the time.
In an October 2018 statement obtained by CNN, archaeologists expanded on that renovation theory. “[This hypothesis] could help explain why, next to rooms with frescoed walls and ceilings and with cemented floors – in some cases with tiles or marble slabs – there were some areas with plastered walls or even without floors, like the atrium and the entrance corridor,” they said.
At first glance, the graffiti looked pretty innocuous, too, telling of how someone had “indulged too much in food here.” However, it was the date given for the reported excessive eating that intrigued historians the most. And in turn, the message ultimately forced them to reconsider what they thought to be true about Pompeii.
To the average Joe, the date given may have appeared fairly inconsequential. It simply reads “XVI K Nov,” which in terms we’d understand today means “October 17.” But to people who concern themselves with the study of Pompeii, this daubing was surprising. You see, it suggested that the eruption of Vesuvius may have occurred later than previously thought.
Prior to the discovery of the inscription, historians had believed that Pompeii met its end on August 24, 79 A.D. They landed upon that date thanks to Pliny’s letters – the only known eyewitness records of the disaster. However, the new-found graffiti seems to have been created nearly two months after Vesuvius’ fateful eruption had supposedly occurred.
Indeed, archaeologists working on the latest excavations at Pompeii are confident that the scrawl was penned shortly before the volcano blew its top. And the team explained their reasons in a statement obtained by the BBC in October 2018. “Since [the graffiti] 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 79 A.D.,” they said.
It’s worth noting, though, that not all experts assume Pompeii was buried in August of 79 A.D. Some believe that the event happened much later in the year, owing to chestnuts, autumnal fruits and wool clothing having all been found among the ruins. But based on the newly uncovered graffiti, it seems that the eruption actually occurred on October 24, 79 A.D. – a week after the marking was made.
So, how did Pliny come to get his dates so wrong? Well the fact of the matter is that he wrote his account of the eruption two decades after it occurred. Furthermore, there are no original copies of his letters – only translations – and many of these contain varying dates. It appears likely, therefore, that there has been some kind of misunderstanding along the way.
Meanwhile, shortly after the graffiti was unearthed, Italian Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli made an official visit to Pompeii. While he was in the area, moreover, he referred to the writing as “an extraordinary discovery.” Bonisoli further added, “The new excavations demonstrate the exceptional skill of our country.”
And archaeologists didn’t just see the graffiti during the dig; they also uncovered two houses of opulent design in the Regio V area. There, experts found a fresco that is thought to constitute part of a lararium – the place in a Roman household where families honored their gods. That room also presented a pair of serpents; these are thought to have represented “good demons” who were able to attract riches to those dwelling in the home.
And the director of the site at Pompeii has also commented on these new finds, according to a 2018 report by Lonely Planet. “It’s always exciting to discover something new and [to] see our efforts give results,” Massimo Osanna said. “It’s also interesting to see traces of previous archaeological excavations emerge and [to] observe how the same work we’re doing today was conducted in other eras.”
Plus, archaeologists made another surprising discovery in the same villa and in the same month that the graffiti was found. This time, it came in the form of skeletons that had once belonged to a pair of women and three kids. The group were found bunched together inside the house, where it’s believed that they had sought shelter from the eruption.
According to Osanna, it’s likely that the women and children locked themselves in the room after realizing that they couldn’t escape. At that point, ash had been raining down for 18 hours and obstructing the roads out of the city – meaning all the clan could probably do was to stay inside inside and block the door.
In October 2018 Osanna added to The Daily Telegraph, “The place where [the group] took shelter must have seemed safe.” But, revealing their terrible fate, he then added, “They were crushed by the roof when it collapsed or burned by the pyroclastic cloud – or perhaps a combination of both those things.”
So, thanks to the most recent discoveries at Pompeii, it seems that there’s still a lot to learn about the ancient city. And it’s little wonder that the location is one of Italy’s most visited attractions, drawing an impressive two and a half million tourists each year. Yet these great crowds can also lead to substantial complications.
In fact, the ruins of Pompeii – which have been preserved for close to 2,000 years – are today under threat. The main risks come in the form of erosion, light exposure and wildlife, although human activity also plays a part. Among the man-made problems facing Pompeii are theft, vandalism, pollution and tourism.
As a result, then, Pompeii has recently been subject to improvements funded by the European Union. In particular, these works were organized in order to ensure that the site is protected “for future generations.” And so hopefully the city will maintain its integrity for years to come – providing us with a glimpse into ancient Rome in the process.