August 24, 79 CE: The Burial of Pompeii

3 Comments
View from the Forum looking towards the Temple of Jupiter with Vesuvius in the background. Photo (c) 2012 Kim Traynor

View from the Forum looking towards the Temple of Jupiter with Vesuvius in the background. Photo (c) 2012 Kim Traynor

Today, August 24, is the traditional date for the Eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, which buried Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae on the Italian peninsula south of Naples, in Campania. This date comes from one of the editions (Codex Laurentianus Mediceus) of the letters of an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger, which gives the date as nonum kal. Septembres, apparently an abbreviation for a standard Roman date, “nine days before the Kalends of September,” that is, August 24 in modern reckoning. The Kalends were the first day of each month, and one counted backwards from them after one had passed the Ides (13-15 of the month).

It seems a cumbersome system to us, however, we know the Romans liked counting down, as evidenced by their numbers duodeviginti and undeviginti (2 from 20 = 18, 1 from 20 = 19). Later practice of Roman Numerals also used this subtractive principle, viz. IV = 1 from 5 = 4.

Façade of S.Maria Maggiore in Como. Statue of Pliny the Younger by Tommaso and Jacobo Rodari. Photo (c) 2006 Wolfgang Sauber.

Façade of S.Maria Maggiore in Como. Statue of Pliny the Younger by Tommaso and Jacobo Rodari. Photo (c) 2006 Wolfgang Sauber.

Other dates come from two facts. First, not all of the manuscripts of Pliny the Younger have the August date. Second, the archaeological data point to a later time in the year, as Fall fruits and grains were found, people were wearing heavier clothing than one would in summer, and a coin that should have been minted at the end of September has been unearthed from a woman’s purse. Scholars now suggest that Pliny’s original date was something like a.d. IX kal dec (November 23) or a.d. ix kal nov (October 24)–(a.d. = ante diem), therefore it would mean, “on the 9th day before the Kalends of December (or November).”

Nevertheless, August 24th is the “traditional” date of the Eruption, so we will commemorate it today, approximately 1,933 years later. I say “approximately” because we must remember that in 79 CE, the Romans used the Julian Calendar, which today is 13 days behind both the Gregorian Calendar (used by the civil/secular world as well as Western Christians) and the Revised Julian Calendar (used by many Eastern Orthodox Christians).

A map showing the cities and towns affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The general shape of the ash and cinder fall is shown by the dark area to the southeast of Mt Vesuvius. (c) 2007 MapMaster.

A map showing the cities and towns affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The general shape of the ash and cinder fall is shown by the dark area to the southeast of Mt Vesuvius. (c) 2007 MapMaster.

On that fateful day (whenever it was!), two Roman notables were near the Gulf of Naples. It was a young administrator, lawyer and poet, Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus), and his Uncle who had helped raise and educate him, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), a naturalist and philosopher. The Elder Pliny had been appointed Prefect of the Navy by the Emperor Vespasian. He was stationed at Misenum, and was preparing to sail across the Bay to witness the eruption from a safe distance, when he received an urgent message by courier from his friend Rectina, asking for his help in evacuating the area. He launched the ships under his command, and they reached Stabiae, but were prevented by the prevailing winds from sailing away. He and most of his crew died under the falling pumice, but some escaped, and brought the news back to Pliny the Younger and his Mother.

Twenty-seven years later, Pliny the Younger recalled the events in two letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus. A translation of the letters (6.16 and 6.20) may be found here, and an edition of the Latin original here.

All of this would be, as the saying goes, “ancient history,” except for the extraordinary preservation caused by the falling ash (13-20 feet deep). Vesuvius didn’t just destroy, it preserved the cities it killed to provide a unique view of Roman daily life.

Pompeii, House VII, 2, 6: This may be the portrait of a couple who ran a Bakery. He had gained his citizenship through military service, and they are thought to have been Christians by some investigators. Exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples.

Pompeii, House VII, 2, 6: This may be the portrait of a couple who ran a Bakery. He had gained his citizenship through military service, and they are thought to have been Christians by some investigators. Exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples.

The location of Pompeii had been forgotten during the Western Middle Ages. In the Italian Renaissance, in 1599 a public works excavation project to divert the River Sarno encountered a buried wall with frescoes and an inscription concerning a decurio Pompeii  (town councillor of Pompeii). Partly because of the overt erotic content of the frescoes, and perhaps partly to preserve them for future, and more respectful, excavation, the architect Domenico Fontana reburied them at the time.  The incident was rapidly forgotten.

In 1738, workers excavating for a summer palace of the King of Naples discovered the remains of Herculaneum, and ten years later, the Spanish military engineer, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre began to unearth Pompeii. Charles of Bourbon, King of Spain, took great interest in these ancient sites, as they reinforced the importance of Naples.

During the rest of the 18th century and following, scientific, archaeological digs have continued to discover more and more of these unique sites. Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and receives upwards of 2,500,000 visitors a year. In the 19th century, excavators developed a technique which allowed an even more thorough preservation. As they dug through layers of ash, they encountered voids in the ash, with human remains inside. The head of the dig, Giuseppe Fiorelli, realized that these cavities were the shapes of the victims, and began filling them with plaster to recreate their forms. Today, resin is used, but the technique is the same.

Later this weekend, we will explore the importance of what we have learned from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and are still learning!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

Happy St. Laurence Day!

Leave a comment
Archdeacon Laurence

Archdeacon Laurence

August 10 marks the Feast Day of the early Roman Martyr, the Archdeacon Laurence (Lawrence). The Commemoration is of such antiquity that it is celebrated on the same date in both the Latin and Byzantine Calendars. In the Byzantine Calendar, he is joined by his fellow Martyrs of the persecution by Emperor Valerian in the year 258: Pope Sixtus II, the Deacons Felicissimus and Agapitus, and the Soldier Romanus.

The inclusion of a Christian Roman Solider bears out more recent research that Christianity was growingly popular among the ranks of the military, alongside Mithraism.

Several legends surround the Archdeacon Laurence, linked to his role as treasurer of the Church of Rome. One story has him receiving the Chalice of the Holy Grail from the Greek Church, and sending it for safekeeping to Huesca, in present day Aragon. That Chalice is today venerated in a chapel in Valencia.

The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Laurence to death.

The shrine at en:San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Laurence to death.

The most famous part of his legend, however, is how he was Martyred. St. Ambrose of Milan (De officiis ministrorum, 2.28) tells us that when Sixtus was killed, Laurence worked for three days to distribute any resources of the Church to the poor. When the Roman Prefect demanded that the Archdeacon turn over the wealth of the Church to him, he presented the poor, the lame, and the sick, and declared that these were the jewels of the Church.

Bernardo Strozzi, The Charity of St Lawrence

Bernardo Strozzi, The Charity of St Lawrence

An unhappy Prefect then ordered him to be burned on the gridiron. When I was in grammar school, the Sisters transmitted the ancient story that at one point during his roasting, he quipped “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” Therefore to us kids, as to generations before us, he became the patron saint of Football (Gridiron), Cooks, and Comics. See how legends grow!

Modern historians doubt the historicity of parts of Laurence’s hagiography: “the customary and solemn formula for announcing the death of a martyr – passus est [“he suffered,” that is, was martyred] – was made to read assus est [he was roasted]” (Pio Franchi de’ Cavalieri). The Roman edict condemning Christian clergy indicated that they were to be beheaded, and the Liber Pontificalis uses “passus est,” for both Sixtus and Laurence.

In any case, he died standing up for what believed, and has been venerated in East and West ever since.

(c) Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Martyrs Stephen and Laurence

(c) Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Martyrs Stephen and Laurence

I have a particular connection to both the Saint and his Feast. I am named after the first Christian Martyr, another Deacon, Stephen from the Church of Jerusalem. His Martyrdom is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, witnessed by none other than Saul of Tarsus (later St. Paul). The two Deacon Martyrs are often linked in Iconography and hagiography.

Second, 40 years ago today, I was visiting Rome with my family after I had graduated from Brophy Prep. I wanted to visit the five Patriarchal Basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and San Lorenzo fuori le muri (outside the walls). Each of these is dedicated to one of the Patriarchates of the Pentarchy–the five Patriarchal Sees within the Roman Empire. St. Laurence’s basilica is dedicated to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, where the Protomartyr Stephen was glorified. The others correspond to Antioch (St. Mary Maggiore), Rome (St. John Lateran), Constantinople (St. Peter’s), Alexandria (St. Paul’s Outside the Walls). (This was probably a not-so-subtle move by Rome to suggest that it was the center of Christianity.)

Forum Romanum, archeological area, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, view from Palatine hill

Forum Romanum, archeological area, Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, view from Palatine hill

We should pause a moment in our narrative for some explanations:

Basilica: A Roman Basilica was a high-ceilinged hall for Royal use (βασιλικὴ στοά)–Basilkē stoa. Α 1st century CE Neopythagorean Basilica was unearthed in Rome, and when Christians began openly building Churches in the 4th century, they often followed this architectural pattern with three naves and an Apse.

Miniature 38 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century: Construction of Hagia Sophia during the reign of emperor Justinian.

Miniature 38 from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14 century: Construction of Hagia Sophia during the reign of emperor Justinian.

Pentarchy: The Christians who made up the groups that were tolerated by Constantine had already organized around urban centers headed by a Bishop. Five of the Major Cities of the Empire began to be recognized as the centers of five “Patriarchates”: Jerusalem (the Mother City of Christianity), Rome (the old Capital), Constantinople (the new Capital), Antioch (“where they were called Christians for the first time”), and Alexandria. Each area had different Liturgical and other usages, and reflected the cultures and philosophical heritage of their localities. This became known as “the Pentarchy”–rule by five.

A chart describing the divisions within the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala

A chart describing the divisions within the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala

Of course, outside of the boundaries of the Roman Empire, other Patriarchal or Archiepiscopal Sees were recognized, notably the Ethiopian Church, the Churches of Armenia and Georgia (the first two nations to adopt Christianity officially), the Church of SeleuciaCtesiphon (Persia), and the Church of India (Malabar).

In addition, there were many other varieties of Christianity, including Gnostic movements, the Manichaean hybrid of Christianity and other religions, etc.

Now, back to our story.

Basilica of St. Laurence Outside the Walls

Basilica of St. Laurence Outside the Walls

On that day, Wednesday Aug 10, 1972, I made it to the last of the five Basilicas, San Lorenzo. When I got there, I noticed that the statue of the Saint was set up in the middle of the Basilica fully decorated with flowers. Then I discovered that indeed, it was his Feast Day! No wonder. As I explored the monumental cemetery which is attached to the Church, I marveled a this synchronicity.

So Happy Feast Day!