Writing on the Wall at Pompeii: Gluttony & Media Sensationalism.
A new message flashes across the screen “Pompeii graffiti changes historical narrative… may rewrite time line of Vesuvius eruption”. How exciting. In ancient and modern worlds alike, isn’t it delicious when people have to admit that they are wrong? This gripping intro is designed to attract attention and the date of the inscription is the same day the story breaks; is that merely a coincidence? The coverage of this event is a good example of how information can be distorted by the media and the sources: this does not make the discovery less valid, but it can detract from the way the information is presented and understood by a broader audience. Perhaps the most important role ancient history can play in a modern world (apart from learning through past mistakes) is the development of a critical thinking process. The difficulty of sorting truth from assumption is a problem endemic in the human experience, and never more so, than in the present day, where we are constantly bombarded with information on social media, rife with claims of “fake news” propaganda, exaggeration, and blatant political bias. Now may be the most important time in the history of humanity to develop and employ a critical approach to the information that arrives on our screens from so many different sources and places, regardless of what side the political aisle you stand on.
In studying History, there is a good reason why academics can be “hedgy” about setting dates or making definitive statements: proposed dates have been proven wrong many times and the more certain a person is about an event, the more likely he/she is to dismiss contradictory theories, no matter how compelling they may be. This approach is captured in the famous quote attributed by Plato to the Greek philosopher Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” I’ve never been happy with this translation because the sentiment it conveys is not a lack of knowledge but a knowledge of what is unknown and/or unproven. Socrates appears to have understood what modern neuroscientists have proven: once the brain accepts something as truth, it tends to dismiss any information that contradicts this truth. Surely it’s better, Socrates is saying, to reject the concept of an incontrovertible truth altogether, than to close our minds to new evidence and arguments. The aim of this blog to illustrate how materials from the ancient world transform our understanding of ancient and modern culture. Discussions will not provide “answers” but will explore how we approach sources, ancient and modern, in social media.
So back to the exciting new find from Pompeii: the story of the find comes Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varonne associated with the Parco Archeologico in Pompeii in an Instagram post. While they are a verifiable source, they also have an agenda, increased public interaction with the site and its objects provide crucial opportunities for funding and media exposure, both of which the site needs. The pictures show a text, sometimes a translation, but more often, the news covers the date in implications of the debate: October 17th and often a year (79 AD: although the year is not in the text). The image of Roman handwriting in the photo, which presents challenges to classically trained scholars, promotes the image of writing but prevents a detailed interaction: the text, it seems, is secondary to the date. In a “Socratic” approach (acknowledging what we don’t know), there are significant exclusions: what did the text say? How visible was the writing? Where it was on the wall? How big it was it (letters are generally less than 1cm high)? Where in the house was it? These omissions fundamentally distort both the text and how we approach it. The force of nearly all the articles is not the text but a sensational possibility: the modern consensus date for Vesuvius’ eruption might be wrong.
The contentious date aside, the text is actually quite interesting. My favourite translation is part of Prof. Peter Kruschwitz’ s blog entry (itself a thoughtful and critical assessment), which offers a number of nuances: not assuming the author of the text is male, and using a word like hunger, which may not refer to food (based on the number of graffiti in Pompeii which refer to a different kind of corporal craving).
XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit
pro masumis esurit(ioni).
On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.
Crucial to understanding graffiti is the knowing context in which it was written. Not knowing if this room was close to a kitchen or a bedroom, could fundamentally alter how it was read, in both ancient and modern contexts. Someone had a very good time on the 17th of October in room in Pompeii, that he/she thought worth inscribing for posterity; surely this itself is an interesting item of news, but probably not enough to go “viral” in social media. A reading of the text also raises questions about whether this is written by a builder, rather than a person who was living, visiting the house. We don’t know who wrote this, but having the full text can at least help us understand why and in what context, it may have been written.
Coming back to the focal point of the publications, the accuracy of the eruption date, there were numerous responses by different scholars, from intellectual heavyweights like Mary Beard, who initially dismissed the two month differential as insubstantial (to be fair, this is likely to reflect not only a quelling dismissal of the claim, but also of the way the sensational way in which the find had been published) to a compelling piece in Forbes by Dr. Kristina Kilgrove, a bio archaeologist, on how the chronology impacts the study of archaeological remains. Dr. Kristina Kilgrove
Different people have different perspectives on this evidence, and not one of them is necessarily wrong, but as modern archaeologists and historians come to a crossroads, one witnesses and a key issue in the disciplines of History and Anthropology: the approach to material evidence. Quite often, inscriptions and archaeological evidence, which come directly from antiquity, are interpreted as being more factual than literary accounts, which can be affected by the manuscript tradition. In ancient or modern contexts, are accounts written directly at a time more factual? Based on modern media sources, the response seems to be: not necessarily.
Fruits of Discord? Carbonised pomegranates from Oplontis
To assess the date for eruption of Vesuvius, which is not a new subject of debate, one needs to look at both types of sources carefully, considering both their strengths and their limitations. For the archaeological evidence, we have a date that has been written in charcoal. What are the practical implications? While it is not a permanent medium, there is not necessarily a reason to assume it could not survive for 10 months on a wall, especially if it were low to the ground and not clearly in view. Modern pencils may fade, but without external weathering elements, they remain visible for years. There is also the possibility that it was written later: dead bodies were found above the eruption layer in the House of Menander at Pompeii, it appears that looters had tunnelled in for treasure when the roof caved in. Bad luck. There have also been questions of authenticity, but this is hardly something that a broader audience can be expected to assess critically.
Other material evidence, such as pomegranates, are more likely to fit a date in October. However, with a harvest season that begins in September, the prospect of a ripe pomegranate a week before (August 24th) is not exactly earth shattering, especially given the climatological events the preceded the eruption, such as the drying up wells and minor earthquakes, all of which could have impacted the harvest date by a week or two. Finally, the question of extra clothing, this may be the most interesting point, as anyone who was ever been to Italy in August would understand, layers are not necessary. However, in the context of a volcanic eruption, when the ash covers the sun and there is falling ash, hot cinders and pumice, layers do not seem so unusual, as they would have offered a level of protection from the elements.
How do we know what it was like during the eruption of Vesuvius? Because Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61-113) wrote about it, recording the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who died bravely taking a ship in the Bay of Naples to save his friends. Quite unusually (e.g. Livy writes of the founding of Rome 700 years after it happened), Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption is a direct report by someone who observed it and interviewed survivors. He wrote about the event 25 years later in a letter to the Historian Tacitus, one of the most respected and exacting historians in the Roman World (the kind of person for whom one would be sure to get the date correct!) Catastrophic events, particularly those where a family member dies, tend to be remembered correctly, especially when they impact an entire nation. So, despite having a rare first hand account of an event, issued to a famous historian in a published letter (which would probably have also been edited and checked for accuracy before publication), should we overlook this source because of a problematic manuscript tradition (sneezing monks and all that)?
While manuscripts do often impose limitations with large chronological gaps, the manuscript for Pliny’s letters (the Pierpont Morgan text) has been dated to the 6th c. AD, which is quite early for an original manuscript (ca. 450 years from the original text) and studies of its framework have lauded its accuracy and possible resemblance to the original manuscript. While scholars can observe a “butterfly effect” of mistakes in manuscripts where a small error is compounded in future editions, the suggestion that a potentially bawdy scrawl on a wall in Pompeii, a pomegranate and some extra layers of clothing are grounds for reversing the Pliny’s literary account, seem equally fluttery. It does not help that many modern news articles on the graffiti simply refer to “Pliny”, not setting out which Pliny (the younger) or the source (his letters).
The new find is certainly a basis for further enquiry and for keeping an open mind about dates for historic events in general. Pondering the evidence on the way to lecture on October 17th, I slipped on a patch of wet leaves. Inspired by Dr. Kilgrove’s account of how biological information can impact a survey, it struck me that there is a fundamental biological difference between August 25th and October 17th: leaves. It may not have been a “eureka” moment where I conceived the idea for the flux capacitor, but it did cause me to pose one question (which may be incredibly facile and naïve). If the eruption took place in the third week of October, would one expect to find clusters of leaves on the ground, with corporal remains or even as impressions?
The question of when Vesuvius erupted cannot be proved conclusively with the evidence we have, and alas, this conclusion is not nearly as exciting a story. However, the process involved in critically assessing and questioning the information we are given, as well as the motivations of its source, are crucial to understanding all news reports, ancient and modern. This is why studying ancient history is as important as studying politics or biology. From agendas of reporters to the interests of bio-archaeologists in this study, one should be able to observe how innately connected these fields are within the human experience.
The promotion of this graffiti find is not “fake news” but in terms of revealing the nature of the object, where it was found, or the complexities of the debate, these reports show more interest in sensationalising evidence than in providing an informed report of the find. Promoting an international debate and news reports are a positive result for the team at Pompeii, whose name and find has gone “viral” overnight. As long as readers are aware of these parameters, particularly, how agenda and approach can impact interpretation of evidence, then we are less likely make assumptions about the information we are given. The key to finding the answer, as Socrates suggests, lies in admitting both what we know and what we don’t.