One of Pompeii’s greatest mysteries may have been solved

IIn 1987, several mysterious clusters of graffiti found on the walls of the theater tunnel in Pompeii were published in an academic journal. They don’t create much buzz. After all, besides the brightly colored and erotic frescoes of the brothels of the tragic city and the remains of humans and animals frozen over time and volcanic ash, the inscriptions have almost boring. But they may actually be Pompeii’s best-kept secret and one of its greatest mysteries.

These graffiti are written in a cryptic form of Old Arabic that would otherwise be completely unknown in the Western Mediterranean. For nearly 35 years, the inscriptions were a mystery: Who wrote them? And, frankly, what are they doing there? A new paper published last month promises to unlock their secret.

Part of the reason for the oblivion of these unique inscriptions is the mystery surrounding their origins. They are written in Safaitic, a southern Semitic script that records a dialect of Old Arabic. Scholars have numerous Safaitic inscriptions — more than 34,000 written from the first century BC to the fourth century AD — but they are found in the Ḥarrah, the black desert stretching from southern Syria, down northeastern Jordan, and into northern Saudi Arabia. The script was used by nomads who inhabited the region and bred camels, sheep, and goats. Prior to the discovery of Pompeiian, Safaitic had never been seen in the Western Mediterranean, much less the Italian Peninsula. Aside from the “volcanic stuff” (the black desert is so called because it’s made of basalt), it’s difficult to see what Pompeii and Ḥarrah have in common.

Inscriptions — 11 in total — were found on the north wall of the passage (known as the theater tunnel) connecting the cluster of old theaters with Via Stabiana, one of the main roads leading in and out of the city city. They were first recorded in the 19th century, but they were not deciphered until Jacqueline Calzini Gysens published an edition of them in 1987. (Her publication identifies nine texts, but analyzes Later analysis re-divisioned the archaeological evidence into eleven separate examples.) from including them in Online carcasses of ancient North African inscriptionsThey have been largely unresearched.

A new article, published in the latest issue of prestige Journal of Roman Studies by the professor of classics of the University of St. Olaf Kyle Helms, provides a great solution. So far, the working hypothesis for their existence is long-distance trade. The explanation has a ring of truth to it and is certainly believable. But it’s as easy as it sounds: If you found something out of place in the ancient world, it must have been brought there from somewhere else. But the “trade” explanation doesn’t really give us much to go on, especially as Helms notes, when there is no evidence “for nomadic involvement in the trade in Puteoli” [the port that served Pompeii] – or, in fact, with any kind of trade. “

Apparently the graffiti was written by nomads from Ḥarrah, the real question is, why are they in Pompeii? Helms argues that these nomads were incorporated into the Roman army and arrived in Italy with the Legion III Gallica — the Third Gallic Legion — during the civil war in AD 69.

The reason for the alignment is partly because of the context. Safaitic-style graffiti is not alone; they fit neatly into the pile of inscriptions that adorn the theater walls. The inscriptions have a diverse grouping: images of boats, animals, and gladiators jostling for place alongside bathroom stall-styles flaunting group sex, prayers to Venus and plenty of words. trivial assertion of presence. Belonging to this second last category, written by Roman soldiers and located near Safaitic inscriptions, makes Helms particularly suggestive. These clear examples note that “The Men of the Third were here” and offer their condolences (“goodbye, Rufa, for you suck”) and best wishes (“ goodbye, sting) to the inhabitants of the city.

The men of the Third Reich were for a time thought to have served as soldiers in another of Rome’s Third Legions. There was more than one Third Legion in the army but, according to historian Tacitus, Legion III Gallica was stationed in Capua during the declining months of 69 and the early days of AD 70. As no other Third Legion is known to have been nearby at the time, this was a probable opportunity for these genuine poets to leave their mark on the corridor wall.

This is important, Helms writes, because III Gallica arrived in Italy after almost a century in Syria, “the distant homeland of the Safaitic writers”. They were called to Italy when they marched in support of the future Emperor Vespasian, who succeeded power grabs from his predecessor Vitellius. They spent some time in Capua, at the expense of local nobles who favored Vitellius over Vespasian. They were finally sent home in 70.

Helms identifies two ways that the nomads may have joined the Third Gallic Legion: first, during this period the Roman legions became more and more provincial and increasingly attracted the local population. . Thus, a corps with historic ties to Syria would include a large number of Syrian recruits. This is apparently from Tacitus himself, who alludes to the men of the Third Reich following Syrian religious customs. Alternatively, it is possible that the Safaitic writers were auxiliary people. The movement of auxiliary troops was unusual, but periods of crisis – such as the civil war of 69 – were possible.

Other scholars agree that there is evidence that the Roman army employed nomads as assistants. In his work Michael McDonald, a preeminent scholar of the Ḥarrah inscriptions, has suggested that the nomads may have been incorporated into the army, perhaps in a special “ethnic unit”. It’s hard to tie graffiti evidence from Ḥarrah to AD 69, but yes, write professor Ahmad Al-Jallad“Specific evidence for the activity of Roman auxiliary military units was produced by the nomadic tribes of Ḥarrah.”

If Helms is right and he presents a compelling case, what does this mean? Why did these men (we know their names – Tm, Md and hb – but Safaitic doesn’t preserve vowels so we can’t pronounce them with certainty) put them in the hallway sing? Helms tells me we will never know for sure “but there are some possibilities. It’s easy to imagine, for example, that they might be expressing a certain pride in their identity and language… perhaps the Safaitic authors wanted to engage in writing on the wall, as formal as the their teammates. [from the Third]—But, again, they did so in their own language and in their own writing. ”

This is not necessarily about adaptations of Roman custom. It is remarkable that to these soldiers, the streets of Pompeii were as unfamiliar as those of Pompeii, the city’s thick inscriptions indicating that Helms “might have been very familiar to the travelers.” guests from far, far away. They may not fully understand the Latin or Greek on the walls there (despite growing evidence of bilingualism in Ḥarrah)—but they will understand graffiti as a practice. “Thus, Graffiti is a cross-cultural activity in which everyone – including foreigners – can participate, connect and add their own contributions. The full range of multicultural Pompeian (and neighboring Herculaneum) graffiti can be viewed online at the Ancient Graffiti Project (, guided by Professor Rebecca Benefiel at the University of Washington and Lee.

Helms’ work is important for the ways in which it reminds us of the vastness of the Roman world and its interconnectedness. Helms told me, “I still think it’s amazing that one day in late December 69 AD in southern Italy you could hear Arabic being spoken as you walked towards the theater! Unbelievable! The Safaitic-style graffiti is also a good reminder that the Roman army can look and sound a lot like its empire.”

Just because nomads served in the military did not mean they gave up their own language and traditions. Marking their name in their language on the walls of the International Pompeii can be a point of pride. The power of the Roman empire was demonstrated through its architecture, propaganda, violence, and spectacle that did not swallow up or depend on the traditions of those caught up in its mechanics. In contrast, Pompeii’s walls became canvases for etching linguistic and ethnically diverse expressions. One of Pompeii’s greatest mysteries may have been solved

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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