It has long been believed that syphilis was imported from the Americas. Finding syphilis in Rome before the new world was discovered sheds doubt on this.
Pompeii skeletons reveal secrets of Roman family life
Professor Mary Beard, University of Cambridge
Skeletons found in Pompeii reveal Roman families provided basic health care
The remains of the Roman town of Pompeii destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD79 continue to provide intriguing and unexpected insights into Roman life – from diet and health care to the gap between rich and poor. The basement storeroom under a large agricultural depot in the little suburb of Oplontis was full of pomegranates. To many of the Pompeiians trying to find shelter from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it must have seemed strong and safe.
About 50 people took cover there. We know they did because archaeologists in the 1980s found their skeletons, well preserved. They were overwhelmed by the volcanic debris and burning gases in the very place where they hoped they would be saved.
We know how these poor people died and we know what killed them. But these skeletons can also tell us fascinating things about how the people in Pompeii actually lived. There are some very simple surprises.
For a start, we often imagine that the Romans, or anyone in the past for that matter, were all much shorter than we are. Well, not so these people. In fact, on average, they are taller than the population of modern Naples.
We also imagine that the Romans would have died young. Again, this is another myth – as these skeletons show. There are plenty of middle-aged to elderly people among them. The AD79 eruption of Vesuvius lasted for over 24 hours and caught the population utterly unprepared
The truth is that childhood was the really dangerous time. All kinds of illnesses that we now vaccinate against or can easily cure with antibiotics were devastating killers. Only half the population would have made it to the age of 10. But if you got that far, you could look forward to a reasonable life expectancy in our terms.
Interestingly, infectious diseases leave tell-tale marks and lines in the enamel of children’s teeth. Many of the skeletons in the cellar show these – a visual history of the illnesses these people had survived.
There are some more curious – and startling – discoveries too. The skeletons of a pair of twins show what were almost certainly the signs of congenital syphilis. If that is correct, then it puts paid to the usual idea that the disease was brought back to Europe from the New World by Christopher Columbus and his sailors in the 15th Century.
That is interesting in itself – we are going to have to stop blaming Columbus, or the Americans, for syphilis.