Pompéi (Italie): Archaeologist Finds New Evidence Of The Romans Who Escaped Mt. Vesuvius
Alessandro Sanquirico's set design depicting the eruption of Vesuvius, the climactic scene of Giovanni Pacini's opera, L'ultimo giorno di Pompei, which premiered at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples in 1825.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / PUBLIC DOMAIN
The plaster casts of Romans killed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. are internationally famous, but scholars have long known that more people escaped the volcano's destruction of the Bay of Naples than were suffocated by it. New evidence from inscriptions provides clues to where these refugees settled.
In a forthcoming open-access article in the journal Analecta Romana, archaeologist and historian Steven Tuck of Miami University explains how his creation of a database of Roman last names led him to match up records from Pompeii and Herculaneum with records from the parts of Italy unaffected by the destructive power of Vesuvius. Tuck's goal in doing this work was not just to identify refugees but also "to draw conclusions about who survived the eruption, where they relocated, why they went to certain communities, and what this pattern tells us about how the ancient Roman world worked socially, economically, and politically."
In order to find refugees, Tuck needed to investigate inscriptions on public buildings and tombstones, because historical records only emphasized the physical damage of disasters. This may seem odd to us today, as our news reports tend to center the loss of human life as the main result of a catastrophe, but in Roman times only a handful of narratives, such as Pliny the Younger's account of his famous uncle's death near Pompeii, reflect the human toll of these ancient natural disasters.
Death of Pliny the Elder.GETTY
Tuck created a method for identifying refugees based on several lines of evidence, including: last names that were common in cities near Vesuvius and that show up elsewhere after 79 A.D.; specific inscriptions that list a person's origin at Pompeii or indicate they were born elsewhere; artifacts or cult objects characteristic of Pompeii or Herculaneum that were found in other places after the eruption; and new public infrastructure that may have been built to accommodate a refugee community.
"I looked for names at Pompeii that were prominent in the later years of the city and inscriptions that were as near as possible post-80 A.D. in the 'refuge communities'" elsewhere in Italy, Tuck explains. As an example, there are six people from the family Caninia known from 2nd century A.D. inscriptions at Neapolis (modern Naples). That last name appears earlier at Herculaneum but essentially nowhere else, suggesting the family moved because of Vesuvius.
Tuck makes an even stronger connection, though, for a particular member of this family: Marcus Caninius Botrio, whose name is recorded in the Album of Herculaneum. It is likely that Botrio "is the best surviving evidence of a specific individual from Herculaneum who resettled at Neapolis as a refugee, and then died there as attested by his tomb inscription," Tuck notes.
Another example Tuck presents comes from Roman Dacia, an area of the Empire that is now Romania and Serbia. On a tombstone there dated to 87 A.D., an inscription lists one Cornelius Fuscus, who was a citizen at Pompeii, lived at Neapolis, and was stationed in Dacia as a praetorian prefect who led five legions in Domitian's war. Fuscus "seems to have resettled from Pompeii to Neapolis after the eruption," Tuck concludes.
The "HAVE" mosaic, a kind of ancient "Welcome mat" outside the House of the Faun in Pompeii.HIBERNIAN / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC-BY SA 3.0
Although most inscriptions that survive today reference men, who were the leaders of the patriarchal Roman society, Tuck found an example in Naples of a woman named Vettia Sabina, whose husband set up her late 1st century A.D. tombstone. "That inscription contained the Oscan 'Have,' the only use of it found at Neapolis, while it is recorded repeatedly at Pompeii in inscriptions and graffiti," Tuck notes. 'Ave' is the Latin word for 'hail' or 'farewell' and is familiar to Catholics in prayers and songs like Ave Maria. But 'have' reflects the influence of a language called Oscan, which was similar to Latin and spoken in the south of Italy until the 1st century A.D.
Tuck's combination of history and archaeology has produced strong evidence that it is possible to trace Vesuvian refugees. He finds that many refugees settled on the north side of the Bay of Naples, and that families tended to move together and then to marry within their refugee community. These people probably "represent either those who fled at the first sign of the eruption," Tuck says, "or those who were away from the cities when the eruption occurred." But while this method seems to work for identifying reasonably wealthy citizens, Tuck knows that it is limited because it cannot help him discover non-Romans, slaves, or migrants who escaped Vesuvius.
Plaster cast of a victim of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii.GETTY
In the end, Tuck finds it important to note the Roman government's reaction to Vesuvius. While in the contemporary U.S., our governors or president immediately declare a state of emergency and work to help people affected by a natural disaster, the Roman government didn't react until after people were resettled. Once refugees had moved, though, the emperor earmarked money to build new infrastructure in communities like Naples and Pozzuoli to accommodate the influx of people.
"The evidence presented makes it clear that we can now answer the questions of whether anyone survived the eruption of Vesuvius from Pompeii and Herculaneum and where they resettled," Tuck concludes. "How many refugees escaped is a question that cannot be answered with any certainty; the evidence simply is not good enough to allow for anything like accurate counts."
Tuck's work, though, combined with bioarchaeological evidence from the skeletons of people who were trapped by Vesuvius, and with biochemical evidence in the form of isotope and ancient DNA analysis, paves the way for a fuller understanding of this catastrophic natural disaster and its ramifications on the Roman people.