Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the empire also did not collapse in a day. There are many theories seeking to explain the fall of the Roman Empire: plague, poor military decisions, political instability, etc. Ancient Rome has had such a massive impact on modern society and we want to connect and understand the people of this age: What were they like? How did they live? How did they feel?
The greatest evidence we have is located at Pompeii because so much has been perfectly preserved by the volcanic ash and pumice following the tragic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. With 2,000 or more dead (out of 11, 000 citizens), this city of ruins was left abandoned and overgrown until the mid-18th century and has continuously been excavated for centuries and even today. We are able to understand the people because the city (as National Geographic describes it) has been “frozen in time”.
While the idea of a massive city and graveyard seems morbid, life was also preserved here. We were able to learn how people lived, how they kept their homes, how businesses were set up with signs out front. There was a gym, an amphitheater, barracks for gladiators as well as public baths. We were able to see advertisements and political propaganda. Archaeologists determined social classes and concluded the rich tended to live more central to the city while the poor lived on the outskirts, near brothels. In the homes, kitchen tools, furniture, and food was found untouched.
Perhaps the most intriguing find is written on the walls: Graffiti. The Atlantic describes some of the graffiti found:
“…’Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here,'”…”Much of the graffiti at Pompeii seems surprisingly modern this way. Ancient inscriptions include declarations of love (‘Health to you, Victoria, and wherever you are may you sneeze sweetly.’); insults (‘Sanius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!’); and remembrances (‘Pyrrhus to his chum Chias: I’m sorry to hear you are dead, and so, goodbye!’). There are also billboard-esque painted inscriptions that included political campaign messages, advertisements for Gladiatorial games, and other public notices—like the equivalent of a giant flyer for a lost horse. The commonplace nature of these inscriptions is part of what makes them so historically valuable.”
More recently, in October 2015, scientists performed CAT scans on some of the Roman remains and were able to determine that many of them had nearly perfect teeth. This is thought to have been a result from the Mediterranean diet they consumed: low sugar and high fluoride. Scientists also found that many victims had died from the collapse of buildings rather than suffocation, which was initially thought.
Letters of Tragedy
25 years after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a man known as “Pliny the Younger” wrote about the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, to someone known as “Tacitus”. In 2 letters, Pliny the Younger wrote about what had happened the day of the eruption and that his uncle had died saving those who lived closer to the volcano. The plan was to take a boat out to sea, as Pliny the Elder was a naval and army commander for the Roman Empire, but Pliny the Elder collapsed on the way. Scientists suspect he died due to the inhalation of smoke and having asthma.
There are many other historical sites of importance that have helped us relate to the Romans. However, Pompeii has a richer meaning, perhaps one that can give us an understanding as to what some cultures were like during this time, ancestors or not. With evidence so well-preserved by ash and pumice, there’s still more to unearth and discover at this site.
2.) Map of Pompeii: By cmglee, MaxViol [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
5.) Deceased Roman: By S J Pinkney (Own work) [CC-BY-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)%5D, via Flickr