Venice just cancelled its famous pre-Lenten Carnevale, set for Tuesday, due to fears of the coronavirus.
My subject, though, is not about Venice nor the virus. Actually, the word carne-vale, from the Latin “farewell meat!” reminded me of ancient Pompeii, which has also been in the news of late.
With the advances in new technologies archeologists are revisiting the disaster wrought by Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, examining the bones of victims to determine exact causes of death. In one case, scientists may have identified the skull of ancient Italy’s most famous scholar – Pliny the Elder, a victim of the eruption.
Among the treasures of our heritage, Pompeii is without equal. How many ethnic groups in the world have a time machine to visit their ancient roots? I would encourage every Italian American student to spend a week of study at this lost city. Pompeii not only connects the dots from ancient Italy to the modern world but to Italian culture today.
Vesuvius buried a cluster of Italian towns around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis. Pliny’s alleged skull was found buried near the shore of Stabiae, where on that dreadful day he landed on a rescue mission. Isotope tests of his teeth are consistent with that of a man from northern Italy – Pliny was born near Lake Como.
So who was Pliny the Elder?
He was a man of many talents. He was admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum near Naples, appointed by Emperor Titus who had crushed the Jewish rebellion ten years before. His seafaring days no doubt inspired his other claims to fame – naturalist and scholar. Pliny assembled the first encyclopedia, a 37-volume compendium of knowledge on every subject from around the Roman world. Many academics are amused by the primitive observations Pliny recorded – like, how to cure a cold by kissing the snout of a mouse – but Pliny merely collected everything he learned or heard. In short, it was a reflection of his world, not his beliefs. His two famous sayings, appropriately enough for these strange remedies and his own daring, were “Take it with a grain of salt” and “Fortune favors the bold.”
We know of Pompeii and Pliny’s untimely death thanks to his nephew Pliny the Younger. The Younger was 18 and living with his uncle at the time of the eruption. Years later, he wrote of that day, describing the eruption and the circumstances of his uncle’s death. One puzzling sentence in that account calls into question whether his uncle’s body was recovered or left at Stabiae: “When daylight returned [two days later] his body was found intact, without injury, and clad as in life.” It doesn’t indicate burial or removal.
My grandmother in Italy once sent me a souvenir (ricordo) of Pompeii – a seashell with a picture of the Virgin Mary inside. I always thought it odd, a “Christian” memento from pagan Pompeii? However, one of the finds at Herculaneum was an altar with a cross chiseled above it. Was this the home of the town’s first Christian? If so, it is the earliest symbol of Christianity ever found. Coincidentally, St Paul had landed at nearby Puteoli (Pozzuoli) in AD 61, eighteen years before the eruption. Did he convert some natives?
Another mind-blowing find at Herculaneum was an entire court record on 18 wax tablets of a lawsuit initiated by a freed slave against her former master. Petronia Vitalis sued to get her young daughter Justa from the master’s home. The case took many twists and turns: Petronia won but died soon after. The master countersued the estate to get Justa back. The court was still pondering the claim when Vesuvius blew – a two thousand year old cliff-hanger.
Pompeii and Herculaneum contain libraries yet to be excavated. Technology now allows even burnt scrolls to be read, an amazing feat!
Will these libraries contain new information on Jesus? He is currently mentioned briefly in only two or three Roman documents. Is it possible that, in retirement, Pontius Pilate settled in a town near Naples? His boss at the time of the crucifixion, Pomponius Flaccus governor of Syria until he died in AD 33, might have come from Pompeii. Both men had roots in central Italy. Personal libraries and memoires were common among the Roman elite.
What if…? -JLM