Sunday, 26 May 2013

Writing in Pompeii

In less than two days in the autumn of the year AD 79 Pompeii and Herculaneum were no more. The eruption of Vesuvius obliterated these vibrant Roman cities and at the same time preserved a slice of Roman life for posterity. The finest frescoes of the Roman world, exuberant mosaics, furniture, baby cradles, cosmetics, tools of trade, opulent objects for display, jewellery, wind chimes, baking moulds, jars and combs and everything in between have all survived the catastrophe. Alongside these objects the terrible and beautiful casts of suffering: people and animals contorted in agony, overwhelmed by the extreme heat, their final moment preserved in 3D anguish. 

People go, scripta manent. On a wall there is a graffito with a quote from Virgil, carved by a spurned lover. Outside a tavern there is a sign "Phoenix felix et tu" (Phoenix is lucky may you be too). A writing tablet from House of Lucius Caecilius Lucundus dating from AD 55 is also preserved. It records an auction for Marcus Lucretius raising 40,000 sesterces, enough to buy 8 slaves or pay 40 soldiers for a year.

writing tablet from the House of Lucius Caecilius Lucundus AD 55; British Museum: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition

From the house of Marcus Lucretius comes a fresco of writing materials: a waxed wooden tablet with writing made by stylus, an inkwell with a pen, and a sealed papyrus scroll addressed to the Priest of Mars and Decurior (city councillor) at Pompeii. 

fresco AD 55-79 Pompeii; British Museum: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition
oak galls for ink making; British Museum: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition

 If you're in London, the exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is worth a visit. 
check out Slice of Roman Life: Before and after the volcano in Pompeii and Herculaneum


  1. I saw pieces from the Classical Roman and Greek periods at the Cleveland (Ohio) Museum of Art, a nice New World pile of a collection. Mosaics, encaustic (?) stuff, daily use items. I know about Roman brutality, its military aggrandizement, its corruption, but I still wonder if the Romans hadn't achieved something of a good life for its citizens. Wonderful post, Palimpsest. Jack/USA

  2. It seems that the Romans knew how to live the good life.

  3. Please post again, Palimpsest, on the Roman and Greek periods when the opportunity arises. Jack/USA

  4. Thanks, Palimpsest. I'll admit a little bias. Imperial Rome seems more "psychologically available" to me than, say, something Sumerian. Books, movies, etc.

    You know those tables that rank countries by quantitative and sometimes qualitative measures? I'd like to see something similar for older civilizations. I think Toynbee had something like comparative civilizations, but I'm thinking along the lines of average life expectancy, rates of taxation, degree of political freedom, etc. Jack/USA