Written by Rebecca Mackay
A discovery was made in the ancient city of Pompeii of human remains in the necropolis of Porta Sarno. Partially mummified, the remains are some of the best preserved ever found in the city, with strands of hair intact on the scalp and various inscriptions providing new insight into the life of a Roman citizen 2,000 years after they died. His name was Marcus Venerius Secundio.
The city of Pompeii is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. What happened there, and the devastation wrought by the mountain that looms over the Bay of Naples, is only dwarfed by what has been left to us in the ruins: thousands of perfectly preserved artefacts. Pompeii is a snapshot of Roman life at the birth of the Empire still yielding clues today.
Pompeii: A History
In 89BC, Pompeii became part of the Roman Empire. Its residents gained formal Roman citizenship and adopted Latin as the official language. The Appian way, one of the oldest and most important roads in the Empire, ran from Rome to Brindisi and passed just north of the Bay of Naples. This made the location of Pompeii central to the transport of goods across the Empire – and the city benefitted from this. With massive economic investment from the profits of trade, Pompeii became the cultural centre of the region and attracted the Roman elite as a summer retreat away from the sweltering streets of Rome.
Nestled under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii’s citizens were well-used to the earth shaking beneath their feet. While the soil is rich and perfect for farming, the ground beneath the slopes of an active volcano is highly unstable. In 64AD, Emperor Nero visited Naples during which it is recorded there was ‘a sudden earthquake’; Pliny the Younger wrote that such events ‘were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in [Naples]’. Such was life in Pompeii.
But in 79AD, Vesuvius erupted. We do not know the specifics – only the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger survives, written 25 years after the event. Even the date of eruption is under speculation: long believed to have occurred in August, recent evidence puts it closer to October. There is, however, consensus among historians: Vesuvius erupted over the course of two days. Pumice – a light, porous rock – fell for over 18 hours, the collective weight of the stones collapsing the flat roofs of Roman housing and killing those who had taken shelter inside. Following that, pyroclastic flows: a fast, hot, incredibly dense flow of lava, gas, and ash destroying all in its path and smothering the town.
Rebuilding the Past
After the salvagers had come and gone[i], the city of Pompeii fell from the maps. Local memory forgot. That was until 1738, when workmen digging the foundations of a summer palace for the King of Naples discovered Herculaneum, a nearby town buried by the eruption of 79AD. The quality of the find was so encouraging that the King ordered more of the area to be excavated, and eventually they revealed another town. On August 20, 1763, the inscription “[…] Rei Publicae Pompeianorum […]” was found, and the city was finally identified.
Since then, there has been almost constant excavation of the site. Due to the nature of the eruption, the ruins of Pompeii were sheltered within an airtight cocoon of compacted, carbonized ash, ensuring their survival in a near pristine state. It is because of this that Pompeii can tell us the sorts of things that the formal texts left to us don’t elaborate upon.
In 2019, archaeologists discovered the Roman equivalent of a fast-food restaurant – a thermopolium – completely intact. Literally “place where hot is sold”, these were used by the poorer classes of the city who did not have their own kitchen. With the original colours still visible, the paintwork is believed to depict what the stall would have sold, including chicken and duck. This gives us not only a more complete sense of the building’s structure, but indicates what was popular food fare for the average citizen at the time. Meanwhile, in 1880, an actual loaf of bread was discovered, showing for the first time the composition of the bread Romans ate. We now know that each loaf would have been marked with a stamp signifying both its quality and the bakery from which it came – this loaf, preserved for over 2,000 years, was made by Terentius Neo.
Perhaps most exciting, however, has been the discovery of a dense concentration of graffiti littering Pompeii: an invaluable – and fragile – archaeological source. It is through this graffiti that we know the language of the people, and how that language was used on the streets to sell goods and communicate.
Latin was abbreviated and adapted across the Empire. Each region conquered had its own tongue that would eventually become subordinate to classical (“formal”) Latin. In Pompeii, that language was Oscan. What the graffiti tells us is that by 79AD, the primary languages remained Oscan and Greek. Marcus, the beautifully preserved Roman citizen, was discovered with various inscriptions making reference to theatre performances conducted in Greek. This evidence points to a multi-cultural city. This was an Imperial Pompeii open to the Eastern Mediterranean culture that lay just across the ocean; a culture whose lingua franca was Greek; a culture that was prominent enough to warrant the spoken use of Greek in day-to-day life.
Pompeii is still throwing us surprises: the discovery of Marcus Venerius Secundio is just one more piece to add to the list. The legacy of the city’s devastation is matched only by the legacy of what the city has preserved for history. It is rare that we have a resource so ready to reveal exactly how daily life, not recorded in formal histories, was conducted. Pompeii represents the history of the people, something we rarely get to study, and it is a site that just keeps on giving.
Suetonius, C, Tranquillus. trans. J. C. Rolfe. “Book VI: The Life of Nero.” The Lives of the Caesars. Loeb Classical Library: Massachusetts, 1997.
Pliny the Younger. trans. J.B. Firth. “Book VI: 16, To Tacitus.” Epistulae. http://www.attalus.org/info/pliny.html.
Pliny the Younger. trans. J.B. Firth. “Book VI: 20, To Tacitus.” Epistulae. http://www.attalus.org/info/pliny.html.
Beard, Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Profile Books: London, 2010. 24.
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