Thursday, October 18, 2018

They got the date of the eruption of Vesuvius wrong?

DETAILS MATTER: Pompeii: Vesuvius eruption may have been later than thought (BBC).
Archaeologists in Italy have uncovered an inscription they say may show that the history books have been wrong for centuries.

Historians have long believed that Mount Vesuvius erupted on 24 August 79 AD, destroying the nearby Roman city of Pompeii.

But now, an inscription has been uncovered dated to mid-October - almost two months later.

The inscription does not bear a date. (CORRECTION: it bears a date, but its year is inferential. Sorry for the error.) This confident dating of it to one month in 79 C.E. rather than another month year is inferential. The inference sounds credible, but ... wait for it ... let's see all the data published in a peer review venue before we revise all the textbooks.

I know what you are wondering. Why would Pliny give the wrong date? He did write the letter quite a while after the event. But still, the date would have stuck in his mind. You have to read to nearly the end of the article to get a plausible answer:
Instead, our modern reading of the text is based on translations and transcriptions made over the centuries. In fact, various copies of the letters have contained dates ranging anywhere from August to November - though 24 August has long been accepted.
In other words, his original letter contained the correct date. But over the centuries it was miscopied and modern scholars selected the wrong date from the available readings in the manuscripts.

For me, the big takeaway from this story is a reminder. Most Classical literature comes to us in medieval manuscripts with a very narrow range of variants. We should always keep in mind that our copies of the works of Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Plato, Aristotle, etc. are many centuries separated from their authors. In this specific case we had manuscript variants and chose the wrong one. How often does that happen? And how often is the original reading lost and all we have in the manuscript is an undetectable copyist error or alteration? I suspect both happen more often than we would like to think.

Many years ago I blogged on the Younger Pliny's letter to Tacitus on the eruption of Vesuvius, which I believe is our only firsthand account of the event. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, led a daring rescue mission into the inferno. Pliny's ship was trapped onshore and he himself died. He probably would have survived, had he not gone out onto the beach to make scientific observations.

We don't know how many of the other rescue ships made it back. But judging from their number and capacity, if most of them returned fully laden with refugees, they may have saved a couple of thousand people. In other words, Pliny's rescue mission may have cut the death toll of the eruption of Vesuvius by half.

(Side thought: Why doesn't somebody make a movie about this?)

For other posts on the eruption of Vesuvius, see here and here and follow the links. And there are many other posts on Pompeii and Herculaneum, two of the cities destroyed in the eruption. See the blog search engine and archive.

And yes, all this is relevant to ancient Judaism, both directly and indirectly, in various ways. See the links.

As I was getting ready to post this, I ran across this article: Study shows people died from body fluid vaporization due to pyroclastic flows from Vesuvius (Bob Yirka,; HT Archaeologica News). I flagged the fatal implications of the pyroclastic surge in my post on Pliny's letter, linked above. More evidence for it was published in 2010. This article offers still more evidence.

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