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HISTORY

Was Pompeii destroyed two months later than we thought?

Archaeologists have just unearthed an inscription in Pompeii that suggests the Ancient Roman city might have been destroyed a full two months later than previously thought.

Was Pompeii destroyed two months later than we thought?
Mount Vesuvius towers over the ruins of Pompeii. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

Historians' accounts give the day that Mount Vesuvius began erupting, spewing forth a devastating cloud of ash, stone and gas, as August 22nd, 79 AD. 

But excavations in a previously unexplored part of Pompeii have uncovered an inscription that appears to be dated after the city, according to the accepted version, should have been destroyed.

Written in charcoal on the walls of a house, it reads: “XVI K NOV”, which experts believe translates to 16 (in Roman numerals), calends (the Roman term for the first day of the month, represented by K), and November.

If we assume that means “the 16th day before the calends of November”, that would date the inscription to October 17th.

Though the inscription doesn't give the year, archaeologists say it's unlikely the faint charcoal would have survived long without fading or being rubbed off.

What's more, it was found in a house that appears to have been in the process of being redecorated at the time Pompeii was destroyed, which suggests that it would have been plastered over shortly – had the occupants only had the time.

All these clues lead the site's archaeologists to believe that the inscription dates from just days before the eruption froze Pompeii in time, which they suggest could have been on October 24th, 79 AD.

The evidence for an earlier eruption comes from the one and only eyewitness account, written by historian Pliny the Younger who, aged 17, observed the disaster from the other side of the Bay of Naples.

His letters describing the eruption, while exceptionally detailed, were written some 25 years after the event. Plus, since the original documents were lost, the only records we have of them are copies made hundreds of years later during the Middle Ages – the various versions of which give different dates ranging from August to November.


Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP

Later historians have argued that the eruption must have occurred after the summer, citing the thicker garments victims seem to have been wearing at the time of their death, the fact that autumn fruits were found among the food stores, and that jars of wine – made from grapes that don't usually ripen until late September – had already been set to ferment.

Some geological evidence also supports the theory of a later eruption date: based on the distribution of the different layers of ash, researchers believe that the wind was blowing from the east when Vesuvius erupted; yet easterlies don't typically blow in the Naples area during the summer.

Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli, who visited Pompeii on Monday, called the inscription “an extraordinary discovery”. 

“It may well be that a scribe made a mistake and wrote something inaccurate… but perhaps we're rewriting the history books,” he said.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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