You wouldn’t expect a city that was buried in 20 feet of ash and pumice nearly 2000 years ago to be making headlines today, but Pompeii has proven that it still has a few surprises waiting to be unearthed.
Thanks to what must rank as the world’s oldest TripAdvisor review–“I had a great meal”—scrawled on the wall of an ancient Italian villa in October 79 AD, we now know that the volcanic explosion that destroyed Pompeii took place two months later than historians have always thought. The graffiti was recently unearthed during new excavations in the ill-fated city, where an estimated 16,000 people perished when Mt. Vesuvius blew its lid.
Previously, the cataclysmic eruption was dated to August 24, 79 AD, according to a letter written by a witness named Pliny the Younger (which would actually make a great name for a rapper). Experts are now chalking the discrepancy up to medieval monks (who were notoriously fond of their mead) who transcribed Lil’ Pliny’s letter. Apparently, they didn’t know their August from their October. Whoops!
Here are five more facts about Pompeii–touching on everything from phallic signposts to quirky personal hygiene–which your high school textbook never revealed…
Every year, 2.5 million tourists make the pilgrimage to Pompeii, to walk among the ruins and tread the same cobbled streets as this city’s ancient denizens. They come to touch the two-thousand year-old bricks and marvel at the wealth of recovered artifacts, including casts of many of the volcano’s victims, frozen in time as they drew their last breaths.
The man who made the city come to life for me is Salvatore Spano, a guide who has been leading tours of Pompeii for more than 40 years. He’s a walking Wikipedia, a master of historical minutia, but I’ve boiled down his wealth of knowledge to a wee list of “Top Five Entertaining Facts,” which you can whip out at your next cocktail party to amaze and delight your friends…or bore them into a hasty retreat if they overstay their welcome and threaten to empty your liquor cabinet.
I’ll let you be the judge. Read on.
1. THE OLDEST PROFESSION THRIVED IN POMPEII
There were approximately 25 brothels in Pompeii, and phalluses mounted on walls and in the street helped to point the way. Lots of these still exist, providing numerous photo opportunities, in case you’re interested in updating your Facebook profile pic.
Visitors can even tour one of the brothels, which features the original stone beds (hey, nobody was there to catch up on a good night’s sleep) and paintings of various sexual positions which “guests” could request. “Original Kama Sutra menu,” Salvatore notes with a sly smile.
2. THE CITIZENS OF POMPEII DIDN’T USE TOILET PAPER
Most folks did their business in a big public loo, where they used (and…ACK…reused) a sponge on a stick to tend to their nether regions. “Papyrus was not so soft,” Salvatore explained…not that I had asked.
3. URINE WAS EMPLOYED TO CLEAN CLOTHES
Yep. It was some poor soul’s job to collect jars of urine and take them to the laundry, where it was used to bleach wool and wash clothes. I am 100 percent not making this up. I’ll wait right here while you go hug your washing machine.
4. EELS CAN WARD OFF MALARIA
Pompeii’s residents kept eels in their underground water tanks. The slippery critters would eat insects, like mosquitoes, which breed in the water, helping to prevent outbreaks of malaria. Cue my craving for a tall, icy-cold gin and tonic.
5. THE ANCIENT ITALIANS INVENTED LEGO
If you’ve learned nothing else, my friends, I hope you’ll remember these two things:
1. Be glad you live in the 21st Century, with toilet paper, tap water, and detergent.
2. Don’t build your house under a volcano.
IF YOU GO: