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.
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).
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.
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