Yesterday news broke about the discovery of a graffito from Pompeii that was, in the usual sensationalist way, hailed as a text that would require us to rewrite our history books:
The text, according to Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varone and on the basis of the published photo, ought to be read as follows:
XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit
pro masumis esurit(ioni).
On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.
Pliny’s famous description of Pompeii’s last hours has the eruption happen on August 24th, A. D. 79.
This date was long disputed as a mistake, either by Pliny himself or as a result of a faulty manuscript tradition. The main reasons to challenge the date were discoveries of certain foodstuffs (pomegranates in particular) that would not yet have been ripe at a date in August. Moreover, some of the clothing that was detected in the remains seemed to point at a date in cooler autumn rather than August.
All of this is known, and it has been known for some time.
Nevertheless the discovery of the new graffito has generated a veritable media hype. Stories have already been fabricated about the piece as a builder’s graffito, left during an alleged renovation of the room. Stories about how the graffito could not possibly refer to any other October 17th than that of A. D. 79, as charcoal graffiti are not very durable and therefore would not have survived for years.
All of this is disingenuous, though to different degrees.
Charcoal was commonly used to write graffiti. Martial mentions it, famously. Pompeii has yielded a fair few charcoal graffiti, most of which have been lost now due to unsuitable forms of, or lack of proper, conservation. There is no actual study to confirm the time a charcoal graffiti was likely to last under ‘Pompeian’ conditions. Chances are that graffiti written on the inside of houses, such as this most recent addition to our body of evidence, would have lasted rather longer than those on the outside. Are we to assume that all reported charcoal graffiti from Pompeii were only a few months old, at best? The onus of proof would be on those who wish to make that claim. Could it have survived for about a year, or just under, if not wiped out?
And where does that idea of a builder’s graffito come from? Surely if the builder chose to overeat ‘to the max’, he had no business of recording this in a room of a house that wasn’t his? And why would he record this anyway? Is it not much more likely that the graffito was written by someone who had actually lived in this house, recording this questionable feat – just like many Pompeians chose to record low-key life events, from bodily functions to erotic conquests?
The only thing that we may add to our history books with any level of certainty at this point is that an unknown individual significantly overate on one October 17th, either in A. D. 79 or before.
We may add this to a growing body of evidence in favour of a destruction date in autumn 79 (rather than August). But it provides no certainty by any means.
As academics, it is important that we remain clear about this. The graffito is sensational in its own right, it doesn’t have to be the most important graffito ever found.