Are we sure it was in August?
A humble charcoal scribble could drastically change what we know about one of the Roman Empire’s most famous events
We were fairly sure we knew almost everything about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. We knew which cities were destroyed in the blast, the type of eruption that occurred and an extraordinary amount of detail about the individual stages.
But now we need to question how much of this is actually true.
The current excavations in Pompeii’s Regio V have uncovered something that has called our understanding into doubt. Scrawled in charcoal on a Roman wall is “XVI K Nov”, which means the 16th day before the Kalends of November, or 17 October in our current calendar. While there’s no year attached to this piece of graffiti, it’s pretty clear that the year was 79 CE.
The house where it was found was in the middle of being redecorated, with some walls covered in plaster and others, such as that one, primed for a coat. It’s also worth noting that the graffiti was written in charcoal, which wouldn’t have lasted all that long on the wall if it wasn’t for the eruption preserving it.
So how accurate are our sources? The written evidence came from
Pliny the Younger, who wrote about his uncle’s death, and he sounds very sure of the information he presents as he writes, “I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time vary the truth.” Having said that, Pliny was writing around 20 years after the fact and we don’t have any original copies of his letters – we’re relying solely on translations that have changed over time. The date has varied widely from August to November in different versions and transcriptions, and those who consider the later months to be correct have archaeological evidence to back them up, with autumnal fruits and heating braziers have been uncovered in the ruins over the years, which don’t really fit with our idea of summer in southern Italy.
Now we’re left with the arduous task of trying to figure out when exactly this volcano did explode – did people live two months longer than we previously realised?
Have we stuck with a mistranslation that caused us to have the wrong date for centuries? Perhaps more excavations will unveil some concrete evidence, but until then, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Reading ‘XVI K Nov’, the charcoal graffiti was found on the wall of what is now known as the Garden House in Pompeii’s Regio V