One of Pompeii’s biggest mysteries may have been solved

Shiro de Luca

Shiro de Luca

In 1987, a mysterious graffiti cluster found on the wall of a theater tunnel in Pompeii was published in an academic journal. They didn’t splash much. After all, the inscription looks almost boring next to the vibrant colors and pornographic frescoes of the tragic city brothel, and the wreckage of people and animals frozen in time and ash. But they are actually Pompeii’s best secrets and could be one of its greatest mysteries.

These graffiti were written in an ambiguous form of old Arabic script, completely unknown in the Western Mediterranean. For almost 35 years, the inscriptions have been a mystery: who wrote them? And frankly, what are they doing there? A new article published last month promises to uncover their secrets.

Part of the reason for ignoring these unique inscriptions is the mystery surrounding their origins. They are written in Safaitic, a South Semitic script that records old Arabic dialects. Scholars have many sapphire inscriptions. More than 34,000 were written between the 1st and 4th centuries BC, but it is located in Ḥarrah, a black desert that stretches from southern Syria to northeastern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. This script was used by nomads who lived in the area and raised camels, sheep and goats. Prior to the discovery of Pompeii, safatic was not found in the western Mediterranean and was not found on the Italian peninsula. Except for the “volcanic” (called the Black Desert because it is made of basalt), it is difficult to understand what Pompeii and Ḥarrah have in common.

The inscriptions (11 in total) have scratches on the north wall of the passageway (known as the theater tunnel) that connects the ancient theater complex with Stabiana Street, one of the main roads to and from the city. I found.They were first noticed in the 19th century, but were not deciphered until Jacqueline Calzini Gysens published their editions in 1987 (her edition identified nine texts, but subsequent analysis revealed. Archaeological evidence has been subdivided into 11 different examples.) From their inclusion Online corpus of ancient North African inscriptionsThey have hardly been studied.

New article published in the latest issue of the first class Roman Studies Journal Classic Professor at St. Olaf College Kyle Helms, Provides a great solution. So far, the working hypothesis about their existence has been long-distance trade. The explanation has a circle of truth and is certainly reliable. But it’s both logical and easy. If you find something out of place in the ancient world, it’s certainly brought there from somewhere. But, as Helms points out, “without evidence that nomads are involved in Pteoli’s trade, the explanation of’trade’could not continue much, especially to us. [the port that served Pompeii] – Or, in fact, it involves all kinds of transactions. “

It is clear that the graffiti was written by the nomads of Ḥarrah. The real question is why they were in Pompeii. Helms claims that these nomads were incorporated into the Roman army and came to Italy with Legio III Gallica during the civil war in 69 AD.

The reason for the association is partially contextual. Safaitic graffiti is not alone. They are hidden in the inscriptions that decorate the walls of the theater. There are various groups of inscriptions. Images of boats, animals, and gladiators compete for position alongside group sex, prayers to Venus, and bathroom stall styles that boast a more mundane claim of existence. This last Category 2, written by Roman soldiers and near the Saffite inscription, struck Helms as particularly suggestive. These sneaky examples state that “the third men were here” and say their regrets (“Farewell, Rufa, because you smoke often”) and the best wishes (“Farewell, stab”) in the city. I will send it to the residents of.

The third man was thought to have been a soldier of another third corps in Rome for some time. The army had several third corps, but according to historian Tacitus, Rejio III Galica He was stationed in Capua in the decline of 69 AD and early 70 AD. This was a window that was likely an opportunity for these genuine poets to leave traces on the walls of the corridor, as no other Third Corps was known to be nearby at the time.

Helms writes that this is very important. Because III Galica arrived in Italy after spending almost a century in Syria, the “distant home of sapphire writers.”They were called to Italy when they marched in support of the successful future emperor Vespasian. Rested power From his predecessor Vitterius. They spent time forming billets in Capua at the expense of the local aristocrats who supported Vitterius rather than Vespasian. They were finally sent home in 1970.

Helms has identified two ways in which nomads may have invaded the Third Corps. One is that during this period the Roman Legion became more rural and attracted more and more locals. Therefore, the corps with historical ties to Syria would have consisted of a large number of Syrian recruits. This is clear from Tacitus himself, who refers to a third person who is observing Syrian religious practices. Alternatively, the sapphire writer may have been an assistant. It was unusual to move auxiliary forces, but times of crisis, such as the civil war of 1969, were a sort of opportunity that might have happened.

Other scholars agree that there is evidence that the Roman army has hired nomads as assistants.In his work Michael McDonaldA prominent scholar in the inscription of Ḥarrah suggests that nomads may have been incorporated into the army, perhaps in a special “ethnic unit”.In particular, it is difficult to link the graffiti evidence from Ḥarrah to the year 69 AD, but I write that there is. Professor Ahmad Al Jarad“Concrete evidence of the activities of Roman auxiliary military units raised from the nomadic tribes of Ḥarrah.”

What does this mean if Helms is correct and he presents a compelling case? Why did these guys (I know the names of Tm, Md, Ṣhb, but Safaitic doesn’t store vowels, so I can’t say for sure) named the theater corridor? Helms told me that we would never know for sure. “But there are a few possibilities. For example, it’s easy to imagine that they might have expressed some pride in their identity and language. Perhaps the author of Sapphire is with his peers. I wanted to participate in the writing of the same informal wall. [from the Third]— But again, they did so using their own language and their own scripts. “

This is not necessarily about the adaptation of Roman customs. Surprisingly, the streets of Pompeii are as foreign as they felt to these soldiers. The deeply carved walls of the city made Helms “may seem familiar to these visitors from afar. They understood all the Latin and Greek words on the walls. Maybe it wasn’t (although there is more evidence of bilingualism in Ḥarrah), but you would have understood writing graffiti as a practice. “Therefore, graffiti is a cross-cultural practice and foreign. Everyone, including others, can be involved, connected, and contributed. The full range of multicultural Pompeii graffiti (and adjacent Herculaneum graffiti) is the Ancient Graffiti Project (, Professor Rebecca Benefiel At Washington and Lee University.

Helms’ work is important for how to remind us of both the vastness of the Roman world and its connections. Helms tells me: That’s great! Safaitic graffiti is also a good reminder that the Roman army looked and might have heard of its empire. “

Just because nomads served in the army did not mean that they gave up their own language and traditions. Writing their names in their own language on the cosmopolitan wall of Pompeii may have been a point of pride. The power of the Roman Empire, expressed through architecture, propaganda, violence, and spectacle, does not swallow or embrace the traditions of those involved in its mechanics. On the contrary, the Pompeii wall is a canvas for carving ethnically and linguistically diverse identities.

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