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

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