One result of the eruption of Vesuvius is that we have an excellently preserved snapshot of Roman life in AD 79, meaning historians can build an amazing picture of what life at this time was really like! Discover how even the tiniest of details uncovered by historians can give us a fascinating insight into the lives of people who lived nearly 2000 years ago…
The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 would undoubtedly take a place of honour in any list of ‘ten most famous events of Greek and Roman history’; Pompeii and Herculaneum continue to attract both popular and academic attention, and important new finds constantly come to light. Just in the last year, a graffito seemed to confirm that the date of the eruption was most probably in October, rather than in August as most people assumed; a long inscription on a tomb provided information on bombastic gifts given to his hometown by an immensely rich Pompeian, including an enormous combat of 416 gladiators (which would not have been bad for an imperial festival in Rome itself); and several rather lovely frescoes made international news. The Forbes magazine even called 2018 ‘the year of Pompeii’.
One of the most striking things about these towns on the bay of Naples for a Roman historian lies in our ability to reconstruct in detail – thanks to a unique combination of archaeological and written sources preserved by the eruption – what made these communities tick. The usual problems facing a historian of the ancient world are the very fragmentary nature of our evidence (one historian compared it to ‘fiddling with a jigsaw-puzzle, the pieces of which would not fit’) and the difficulty of dating it. At Pompeii and Herculaneum we have a snapshot of their urban society at a known date, and because these were also relatively small towns, even by the standards of the Roman Empire, we can have a more realistic attempt at a comprehensive picture than almost anywhere else in the Roman world. (This does not of course mean that the evidence is without its difficulties or that new excavations do not constantly change what we think!)
The range of possibilities for study is vast: from researching the complexities of local electoral politics through a really remarkable series of painted electoral posters, to trying to identify the social status and sources of wealth of the home owners. At Herculaneum, we even have what is probably a list of all adult male Roman citizens living in the town at the time of census in AD 73/4 (some 500 names survive), with some additions made in the five years between the census and the eruption. It gives us an idea about the demography, the range of different social statuses (the inscription separates the categories of freeborn, children born outside marriage and freed slaves), the role of slavery (how many slaves do you need to have this proportion of freedmen?), naming patterns and much besides.
In my own research, I am particularly interested in the fantastic archive of legal documents from the family of local bankers and middlemen, the Sulpicii, who had active business in the neighbouring harbour town of Puteoli: 137 documents on wooden tablets, found in a villa just outside Pompeii’s Stabian Gate and excellently published by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Camodeca exactly twenty years ago. At the first sight they appear to be fairly dry stuff, as business documents of bankers tend to do. Summons to court, sworn testimonies, judicial decisions, rental agreements, receipts, auction notices, sales, loans. But if we read them carefully, Roman life vividly emerges from seemingly small details. Let us take just one such document: a loan contracted in June 37 (the year Caligula became emperor) by a Puteolan merchant called Gaius Novius Eunus (Tabulae Pompeianae Sulpiciorum 51, to give its conventional scholarly reference), which I give here in my own slightly simplified translation.
‘In the consulship of Gnaeus Acerronius Proculus and Gaius Petronius Pontius, on the 14th day before the Kalends of July [18 June 37], I, Gaius Novius Eunus, have written that I accepted as a loan from Evenus Primianus, freedman of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, in his absence, through his slave Hesychus, and will owe him 10,000 sesterces in cash, which I will return to him when he demands. Hesychus, slave of Evenus Primianus, freedman of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, asked me to swear that these 10,000 sesterces will be duly paid in good coin, and I made a solemn promise. I have given as security and pledge for these 10,000 sesterces about 7,000 measures of Alexandrian wheat, and 200 sacks of chickpeas, spelt grain, and lentils, amounting to about 4,000 measures, all of which I have in my possession stored at the Bassian public granary at Puteoli, and for which I accept all risk against damage. Done at Puteoli.’
This is part of a long series of financial documents, which also include a rental agreement for the space at the granary, and receipts for the money and the grain, and one can do a really interesting study of the whole dossier. But even when taken on its own, the text already reveals a lot.
- The date is by the consuls, old Republican officials – showing how Republican traditions lived in the Empire, even outside Rome itself.
- Our businessman got a Greek surname, so was an immigrant, or more likely a freed slave (or a son of one), but he is a Roman citizen, writes Latin and uses Roman law: was that enough to be a Roman?
- The man from whom Eunus borrowed money was a freed slave of an emperor and owned slaves himself, showing how connections at the top of society sometimes mattered more than your formal status (he probably wasn’t a citizen).
- It is rather striking that the loan should be repaid on demand, showing both the power of an imperial freedman and the world of very rapidly moving business deals.
- It is (although the sum is pretty large) all paid in cash: while bankers already existed, financial transactions were still fairly primitive.
- The security for the loan was in grain from Alexandria in Egypt, giving us a glimpse of how these businessmen took part in the exploitation of the empire. (The philosopher Seneca vividly describes how the whole population of Puteoli rushed to the quayside and tried to spot by their peculiar sails the first Alexandrian grain ships of that navigation season.)
- Legal terminology in the original is both Greek and Latin (as with two similar terms I translated ‘security and pledge’): such commercial networks spread legal and business practices across the Mediterranean.
- The grain was deposited in public granaries: a real mix of public provision for food supply and private commercial interests.
One of its more interesting features, though, is hidden in my translation. The text is copied twice, on the outside and the inside of a set of tablets. The text outside, by a professional scribe, is written entirely correctly. The text inside, in the hand of Gaius Novius Eunus himself, has the most spectacular spelling errors in just about every word, including the name of the slave from whom he got the money (who becomes Hessuchus); he can’t even spell the name of his hometown, which twice becomes Putoli instead of Puteoli. We can see from that what advanced literacy meant to a very successful grain dealer in a harbour town: clearly not quite the same as you would imagine from reading classical literature. At the same time, the old ceremony of solemn promises was no longer enough; like ours, this became a society governed by documents.
It is through such everyday texts, which the eruption of Vesuvius preserved for us, that we can see Roman life and society beyond the imperial court, elite interests, and high politics. Paradoxically, it is the volcano that killed them that now allows us to take a really close look at the activities of these Pompeian business people.
Using the online tool at http://orbis.stanford.edu/, try to trace the route of an Alexandrian grain ship to the Bay of Naples. How long would it take? What might that mean to a trader in Puteoli?
Was the price of grain in this contract (1 measure, modius, equals 8.73 litres) high or low, given that 900 sesterces were the annual pay of a Roman legionary?
To judge by that, what could it mean to be a freed slave of the emperor?
Dr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History
I teach ancient history, especially Roman, at St John’s. Before joining the college I did my graduate studies at Balliol College, and then spent six years as a junior academic at New College, Oxford, but I did my first degree and got interested in ancient history in Moscow, which is where I grew up in the last years of the Soviet Union. My own research is mainly on law and institutions, and on the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean under Roman rule. I also work on both Latin and Greek inscriptions, especially from the Roman imperial period.