In 79 C.E. Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in thick layers of volcanic ash. There was no time to suffocate; most died not from the poisonous gas but were instead flash-heated into immediate rigor mortis. The eruption froze the final agonizing moments of the city of Pompeii’s inhabitants in time; preserving not only their pain, but their homes, their pets, and the lewd jokes scratched on the city’s walls.
Since the rediscovery of the ancient cities in 1599, the fate of their inhabitants has been a source of fascination to people. Never before had the experience of tragedy been so vividly preserved. And, alongside the pain-wrenched expressions of those who died were scrolls, cooking implements, and artwork: the banal artifacts of daily life.
And now, with modern technology, we can see how the people of Pompeii lived. The Swedish Pompeii Project has used 3D scanning technology to recreate an entire city block (Insula V.1). The digitized buildings include a bakery, a tavern, three large houses and gardens, and a laundry. One of the villas included in the project included a fountain.
We’re not the first to be interested in recapturing life in the ancient world. In the eighteenth century Pompeii became part of the Grand Tour. Interest in the site was fueled by novels like Fairfield’s The Last Night of Pompeii (1832) and Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), but it was the city itself that held the fascination. In the pre-television era, when the past was accessible only through art and literature, people wanted to see the city frozen in time for themselves.
Almost as interesting as the site itself, though, is why early modern and modern Europeans care so much about it. Since the city’s rediscovery Christian novelists and theologians have consistently cast the destruction of Pompeii as an example of divine punishment. The licentious and immoral Romans, they argued, were persecuting the Christians and, as a result, God destroyed them in a rain of fire analogous to the destruction of the Biblical Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Pompeii, in other words, is an archaeological testament to God’s vengeance.
This interpretation seemed to some to be confirmed by the early discovery of erotic art in a brothel at Pompeii. In the late nineteenth century a fresco depicting Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, complete with enlarged phallus was unearthed in the foyer of a villa belonging to two freedmen. It’s easy to see why nineteenth-century authors saw life in Pompeii as shockingly debauched.
It’s an interesting argument, not least because it’s unclear if there were even Christians in ancient Pompeii. In 197 c.e. the Christian writer Tertullian wrote that there were never Christians in the towns affected by the eruption. But Tertullian was writing 120 years later and with a clear theological agenda, so he cannot be considered an accurate source.
As noted Classicist Mary Beard has written, most of the discussion about the supposed Christian presence in Pompeii focuses on a word square found at the site. The inscription reads “"Sator/Arepo/Tenet/Opera/Rotas/" which, translated means “Arepo holds the wheel at his work.” But the word “tenet” (he/she holds) is arranged in the shape of a cross and the letters can be rearranged into two “pater noster”s (our fathers) in the shape of a cross. There would be a couple of alpha and omegas left over, but, as Beard notes, this could gesture to the Christian idea that Christ is the first and the last (alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet).
The problem is that most scholars think that the palindrome, which appears in several locations around the Mediterranean, is actually Jewish in origins. There is some other evidence for Christians in Pompeii, including some rather lewd bathroom graffiti about a woman named Mary, but nothing conclusive. In 79 c.e. names that we today associate with Christianity were equally likely to have been Jewish.
The presence of Christians would be a remarkable discovery because it would provide material the existence of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism in the late 70s. But so far the idea is just, as Beard puts it, “a fantasy.”
The origins of this fantasy can be found in the nineteenth century. In his excellent book Pompeii’s Ashes, Eric Moorman traces the idea to Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days, which cast Christians as a small moral minority that survived the disaster precisely because they were so pious. Even though his Christian characters didn’t die as martyrs, their survival places his book very much in the tradition of Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880) and Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? (1896).
But even if there were no Christians in Pompeii there may well have been Jews. And Jews have been labeling the disaster divine justice for nearly two millennia. Only nine years before the eruption of Vesuvius, the Romans had sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. For some Jews, Vesuvius was just deserts. The Sibylline Oracles, a compilation of Jewish, Christian, and Greek prophecies written and assembled after the events, predicts that “an evil storm of war will also come upon Jerusalem from Italy, and it will sack the great Temple of God...” and adds that “when a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth [Vesuvius] in the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven it will burn many cities and destroy men. Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky and showers will fall from heaven like red earth. Know then the wrath of the heavenly God.”
There’s some debate about whether or not there were Jews in Pompeii at the time of its destruction. The presence of what might be kosher garum (fish sauce) in Pompeii suggests that there were Jews living in the city. And at least one person, arriving at the site after the eruption, has scratched “Sodom and Gomorrah” onto the side of a house. The graffiti is a clear indication that, for some, the destruction of the two Roman cities was an echo of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.
Certainly the interpretation of natural disasters as divine punishment does not begin or end at Pompeii. But Pompeii is interesting because vengeance voyeurism has partially fuelled the tourist industry there for hundreds of years. Perhaps some day we’ll be making similar trips to visit the reconstructions of those cities and sites destroyed by human forces. Then we will face not the vengeance of God but dark side of humanity.