Not all the remains come from those killed in the eruption
When we visit Pompeii, we like to imagine that the bodies we’re looking at that are those of Vesuvius’s victims; victims of the scorching pyroclastic flow, the deadly toxic gases or the lethal pumice stones raining from the volcano. Part of the reason for this is that it fits within the narrative of what we already know. And, let’s face it, there’s comfort in remembering and revising what we already know. Another reason for this is that we’re all guilty of time-capsule history; of assigning a particular moment to a place and forgetting what came before and, just as importantly, what came afterward.
Few people know that the volcanic eruption wasn’t the only natural disaster that befell that particular generation of Pompeians. The historian Tacitus (the pen pal Pliny later wrote to describing Vesuvius’s eruption) recorded a serious earthquake 17 years earlier in 62 AD, which reduced sections of the town to rubble. But though life in Pompeii may have changed dramatically in the wake of the earthquake, it didn’t stop. The same is to be said for after the eruption in 79.
And, while it’s unlikely any bodies from the earthquake were left lying around in situ in the 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, there’s little doubt that some of the humans remain recovered from the site date from the months, years and centuries after the eruption.
One such example comes from the House of Menander (named after the painting of the Greek dramatist of the same name found there). Three bodies were discovered—two adults and one child—armed with pickaxes in a room off the courtyard of this luxurious house. Archaeologists initially thought that they were trying to break their way out of the room when it collapsed around them. Flip this on its head though, and what’s to say they weren’t a band of looters who irreversibly weakened the already damaged structure as they broke their way in, making their looting ground their final resting place?
One modestly dressed woman was found in a location now identified as a slave prison. Her cast is simple. But its only distinguishing feature—her manacles—raises a horrendous truth: she was a slave who had been shackled there, and was unable to escape. She would have been one of many thousands of Pompeii’s slaves (considering a typical Roman household might have anywhere between five to seven). But, unlike the millions of invisible, forgotten slaves of the Roman Empire, her figure has managed to weather the ages, still visible for all to see.
Another of Pompeii’s victims can be identified as a doctor, owing to the fact that his skeleton, found splayed out across the open-air exercise space of the palaestra, is still clutching onto his box of instruments. In another large house the remains of 12 people were found, including those of a heavily pregnant teenage girl (the fact that she was pregnant established by the bones of the fetus found in her abdomen). And it has led archaeologists to believe that the majority of these people were either slaves or relations, and that (unfortunately for them) they decided to stay at home and wait out the disaster rather than risk the girl’s health outside.
In Pompeii’s temporary gladiatorial barracks (the main ones were temporarily out of action), the remains of an ornately jeweled noblewoman were found in the company of several strapping men. This gave birth to the cliché rumor she was caught off guard by the eruption during an illicit visit to her gladiator lover. But as fanciful as this is, it doesn’t explain the fact that she was also found surrounded by at least 18 others, including a number of children who had taken shelter from the debris raining down from the skies.
One of Pompeii’s most famous and poignant casts is that of a man sitting down, his knees up to his chest and his hands raised to cover his face. It’s also one of the most misplaced: currently on display behind the bars of Pompeii’s site storeroom, his situation makes him more closely resemble a perpetual prisoner, lamenting his own confinement, rather than a dying man in his final moments.
One image that has recently gone viral is that of a male Pompeii victim seemingly spending his last few moments on earth doing what—to put it delicately—he may have loved doing best. Simultaneously holding onto both himself and his loved one, his plaster cast reveals a facial expression of either immense pleasure or intense pain (considering the circumstances of his death, the latter was unfortunately, a given). But what can a closer look at this somewhat manual Pompeian man tell us about how he died?
Of the 1,150 bodies recovered, it’s believed that 394 were killed by falling pumice, described vividly in the contemporary account of Pliny the Younger: “They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell around them.” This man, however, doesn’t fall into this category. For a start, there’s no sign of cranial trauma; the only trauma instead coming from people unwittingly exposed to the image today in public or while at work.
Instead, we can confidently count him among the victims of the pyroclastic flow: a lightening fast current of boiling-hot gas and assorted volcanic matter which exploded from the volcano after a long, intense build-up of pressure (innuendo thoroughly intended). The sheer heat of this, estimated to have been at least 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, would have made those unfortunate enough to be in its path enter cadaveric shock. And a part of this involves what’s called cadaveric spasm, which involves the involuntary stiffening of one’s muscles.
So, as much as we may like to imagine that this man became frozen in time mid-way through a one-man Roman orgy; fiddling while Rome burned; determinedly finishing what he’d started as day turned to night and the apocalypse seemed to descend around him, in reality, it seems his death was to do with something completely different: an enormous eruption followed by involuntary muscle spasms.
At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was home to anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 people. So far we’ve uncovered around 1,500 bodies of the 2,000 estimated to have died in the disaster. But we are still continuing to find them: just a few months back in June 2017, French and Italian archaeologists uncovered the bones of four people, including a teenage girl, in a workshop on the Porto Ercolano. But it’s not just the bodies from within the town itself that can tell us about ancient life. A group of at least 54 fugitives found in a cellar in the nearby town Oplontis also help paint a vivid picture.
What’s fascinating is that their remains were divided into two groups. On one side of the room sat the rich. One man, with teeth as good as anyone’s today and muscles far in excess, has been identified as one of the wealthy on the basis that his bones were stained green. This didn’t come from any thermo-chemical reaction from the volcano; instead, it came from the sheer amount of precious metal he was wearing, which came into contact with the bone once the flesh had decomposed.
In fact, the wealth around them was quite extraordinary: lots of jewelry, gold bangles, worn gold and silver coins and unworn gold coins (indicating they were being used as savings rather than currency in circulation).
Then there are the two twins found in the basement of Oplontis, whose teeth and bones—quite remarkably—show signs of congenital syphilis. If this is the case, as scientists are beginning to think, this completely overturns what has been the consensus for centuries: that it was Columbus’s men returning from the Americas in the 1400s who first brought syphilis to Europe.
One of the unique things about Pompeii (at least as far as its inhabitants go) is that it shows off a true cross-section of Roman society. There are bodies of infants just as there are bodies of the elderly; there are the remains of the stinking rich, surrounded by jewelry and coins, just as there are those of the poor, who fled Vesuvius without a single possession to whatever their name was.
There are slaves, gladiators and aristocrats. And, as you’d expect from a fully functioning town in the middle of the countryside, there are the remains of animals: specifically a small boar and a dog.
The dog is particularly disturbing. The cast captures it writhing in its last moments of agony as the pyroclastic flow thundered down the volcano, incinerating everything in its path. Strangely, CT scans have revealed it to be a dog without a bone—without any bones in fact. In their attempt to explain this, archaeologists have (rather obviously) suggested that the bones were removed from the cavity prior to the plaster being poured in. Why, however, remains a mystery.
Pompeii’s canine legacy doesn’t end here. One of the main attractions when you visit the site is the cave canem mosaic; a sign at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet that, when translated, gives us our first ever example of “Beware of the Dog”. And that’s not all. Visit Pompeii today, and you’ll find packs of strays mulling around the city, lured here by the promise of scraps donated by generous tourists. Unlike the tourists, these are the only living creatures in the vicinity blissfully unaware of the tragic fate of their ancestors.