Just under 2,000 years ago, a bored builder scribbled some graffiti on the wall of a house he was working on. What he didn't know was that his banal scribbles would go on to change the history books and confuse scholars.
For centuries, historians have tended to believe that Mount Vesuvius destroyed the nearby city of Pompeii on August 24, 79 CE (although that date has been hotly debated more recently). However, a newly discovered charcoal scrawling in Pompeii from the time strongly suggests that the volcanic doomsday actually struck in October 79 CE.
The faint charcoal doodle reads: “On October 17, he indulged in immoderate food." Or, to be precise, it actually states: "the 16th day before the calends of November,” corresponding to October 17 in today’s calendar. It was scrawled on the wall of a house that appears to have been undergoing some building work. Together, this suggests that everyday life was still perfectly normal in Pompeii around mid-October 79 CE, not swamped under a thick wave of hot ash and volcanic rock.
“Since it was done in fragile and evanescent charcoal, which could not have been able to last long, it is highly probable that it can be dated to the October of CE 79, and more precisely to a week prior to the great catastrophe, which according to this hypothesis occurred on the 24th October,” the archaeologists said in a press release.
The original date of August 24, 79 CE comes from the writings of a lawyer called Pliny the Younger. In a letter to the Roman senator Tacitus, he said something to the effect of: "On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud..." However, scholars even debate the date and translation in these documents too.
Even before this new discovery, many present-day experts were skeptical about this August date, as there’s a bunch of evidence to suggest that the eruption didn’t occur in summer. For example, archaeologists have discovered the presence of fresh autumnal fruits among the ashy ruins, as well as evidence that some of the victims were wearing thicker clothing – not the kind of stuff you’d want to wear in the Mediterranean summer.
The debate about the precise date will undoubtedly continue to rumble on, but this inscription almost certainly suggests that Pompeii was still safe and sound come mid-October 79 CE.