When, Exactly, Did Mount Vesuvius Erupt?

ROME — Traditionally, it has been held that the lives of ancient Pompeiians were tragically cut short on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fury, smothering Pompeii and other cities along its perimeter with volcanic debris.

A study by Italian authors made public on Thursday gives weight to theories that shift the date of the eruption by two months, to the end of October or even early November. It cites — among other evidence — the discovery during a recent site excavation of a charcoal inscription scrawled on a wall on Oct. 17, A.D. 79.

“That inscription is certainly dated after Aug. 24,” the date used by generations of scholars, based on an account by the Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption, said Giovanni P. Riccardi, an associate researcher of the Vesuvius Observatory of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and one of the authors of the study. The later dating, he added, confirmed other evidence that has emerged over the years challenging the August dating.

Since 1748, when the first excavations began, the ancient city of Pompeii has captured the popular imagination as a testament to the arbitrariness of nature and the fragility of humankind.

In their introduction to the study, the scientists note that nearly 2000 years after the eruption, the lure of Pompeii has inspired movies and television series; art, including Andy Warhol’s pop version of “Vesuvius”; and music, like the 2013 hit “Pompeii” by the British rock band Bastille.

Over the years, excavations at the buried city have provided insight about the life of the ancient Romans, and new technology has offered even more detailed clues about their lives, including culinary habits.

Research at the site, said Sandro de Vita, a co-author who works at the Vesuvius Observatory, has also offered additional hints of a later dating, from the discovery of typically autumnal fruit — like walnuts, chestnuts and pomegranates — to wine already sealed in dolia, or terra-cotta containers, suggesting the grape harvest was over.

On-site excavations also found that braziers had been in use at the time of the eruption and some of the victims were wearing heavy clothes, still visible in plaster casts. “This all offers a different interpretation from what Pliny wrote,” he said.

Mr. Riccardi noted that there are no original copies of Pliny’s letter and that it survives only through copies made in medieval times, meaning that slightly different versions, with different dates, exist of the same text.

The Aug. 24 dating comes from a copy of Pliny’s letter in the Florence-based Medicea Laurenziana library, the oldest known copy. “Just because it’s older, strangely it’s considered more reliable. But this is certainly not the way to treat a historical fact,” Mr. Riccardi said.

Biagio Giaccio, another co-author at Italy’s National Research Council, said that some historians believe that in copying the text, the monks who penned the Florence version wanted to associate the eruption with an ancient Roman festival known as the mundus, celebrated on Aug. 24.

Romans believed that on that day a circular crater leading to the underworld was opened, allowing souls to emerge.

But the charcoal inscription spurred debate when it was found in 2018 on one wall of the so-called House With the Garden, which opened to the public last year.

It was likely scribbled by a worker who was restoring the villa at the time of the eruption and reads: “XVI K Nov in[d] ulsit pro masumis esurit[ioni]”, which the authors of the study have translated as: “The sixteenth day before the kalends of November, he indulged in food in an immoderate way.” The date corresponds to Oct. 17.

“The idea that the disaster happened in the autumn is old news, but if they could link it to further scientific questions about the eruption that might be interesting,” the Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard said in an email.

Further questions about what Vesuvius might tell us drove the study, said Mario A. Di Vito, another co-author, noting that the dating issue was just one of many discussed in the article, published in Earth-Science Reviews.

“We wanted to take stock of all the knowledge available” about Vesuvius “and then raise the open issues that still need to be addressed with further studies,” he said. For example, he said, more needs to be known on the seismic activity that took place during the earthquake, as well as “secondary phenomena” like debris flows in nearby towns like Amalfi “which had an enormous impact.”

A multidisciplinary team analyzed the eruption “hour by hour,” tracing the effects both near and far, he said, noting that the study was part of a 2021 project spearheaded by the National Institute of Geophysics that drew on some four decades of research.

And it is by no means over.

“The dating question is sensational,” he said. But the article means to show “that there are definitely a lot of problems still open that need to be solved.”



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