When did Vesuvius erupt?

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tags: Pompeii, Vesuvius

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University.

There have been a splurge of headlines over the last couple of days that talk about the rewriting of the history of Pompeii: it was not destroyed on August 24, Pliny said, after all, but in October. It all comes down to a graffito recently discovered (pictured above) which appears to be dated to the 17th October 79 CE — meaning that the eruption was later than that day.

But hang on, one and all there are problems here. First, this is not a new idea. The idea that the eruption was in October not August goes back to the 18th century, and it is regularly discussed by tourist guides on the site. Philologists have long recognised that the text of Pliny is far from reliable (different manuscripts of his text offer different dates — and dates, like numerals, are extremely likely to get increasingly inaccurate in the processes of copying). And there are other factors that have been claimed to make an August date impossible.

People point to the clothes that the people were wearing during the eruption, to the fruits that were already harvested (pomegranates, there in piles, don’t ripen by Augustus), and to a coin found in the ruins that supposedly could not have been minted in Rome until September 79 BCE (so could hardly have reached Pompeii till October). None of these are done deals. The idea that what people wear in the middle of a volcanic eruption is a good guide to the normal ambient temperature has never convinced me. And there have been all kinds of other worries. The legend on the rather unclear coin has been questioned (certainly not clear enough to press the date that far), and some people have even suggested that unripe pomegranates had an industrial purpose. So August was never simple to unseat.

Read entire article at The Times Literary Supplement

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