The man was roughly 60 years old when he died, and he was laid to rest in an elaborate stone tomb alongside fancy urns and other grave goods. Once an enslaved person, the Pompeii resident found his way to freedom and socioeconomic success, as newly uncovered evidence suggests.
Archaeological discoveries at Pompeii tend to date back to the calamitous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, but this tomb, investigated by researchers with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii and the European University of Valencia, was built several decades before the ancient Roman city was enveloped in ash.
The tomb structure consists of a stone enclosure, and it was found at the necropolis of Porta Sarno in Pompeii. Bits of paint are still visible on the facade, revealing green plants on a blue background.
But the real prize was uncovered inside: the partially mummified remains of Marcus Venerius Secundio, a resident of Pompeii who rose through the social ranks after being freed from slavery. A press release describes it as “one of the best preserved skeletons ever found in the ancient city,” as the body still shows traces of grey hair, and even a partially visible ear. A preliminary analysis suggests Secundio was around 60 years old when he died.
“Pompeii never ceases to amaze,” declared Dario Franceschini, the Italian minister of culture, in the press release.
An inscription on the tomb revealed the occupant’s identity. The name Marcus Venerius Secundio was matched to a wax tablet archive once maintained by a prominent Pompeian banker. The archive identifies Secundio as being a formerly enslaved person and custodian of the Temple of Venus. He was eventually freed, and, as the presence of his monumental tomb suggests, Secundio “reached a certain social and economic status,” according to the press release.
Secundio’s burial inscription was written on a marble slab located at the pediment of his tomb. Importantly, the inscription identified him as being a member of the Augustales — a group of priests devoted to emperor worship. What’s more, the inscription says Secundio “gave Greek and Latin ludi for the duration of four days.” Secundio, it would seem, organised or was somehow involved in theatre performances spoken in Greek.
“Ludi graeci are to be understood as performances in the Greek language,” explained Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. “It is the first clear evidence of performances at Pompeii in the Greek language, which had previously been hypothesised on the basis of indirect [evidence].” To which he added: “That performances in Greek were organised is evidence of the lively and open cultural climate which characterised ancient Pompeii.”
The room in which Secundio’s body was found measures 1.6 metres wide and 2.4 metres long, and it was hermetically sealed, allowing for the “exceptional state of preservation in which the skeleton was found,” according to the press release. Discoveries like this are rare, as the ancient Roman tendency was to cremate adults (only children were buried). That said, one of two glass urns found in the chamber was inscribed with the name Novia Amabilis, who is believed to be Secundio’s second wife. In addition to the two cremation urns, multiple grave goods were recovered, namely numerous fragments of some sort of fabric.
Llorenç Alapont, a professor of anthropology at the University of Valencia, said in the release that the team still needs to figure out if the partial mummification was intentional. He’s hopeful that an analysis of the fabric found inside the tomb will provide further information in this regard.
“From the sources we know that certain textiles such as asbestos were used in embalming,” he explained. “Even for those like me, who have been specialised in funerary archaeology for some time, the extraordinary wealth of information offered by this tomb, from the inscription to the burials, the osteological finds and the painted façade, is exceptional, which confirms the importance of adopting an interdisciplinary approach.”
The skeletal remains were transported to the Laboratory of Applied Research at the site of Pompeii for further analysis and preservation. The tomb at the Porta Sarno Necropoli will also be preserved, as this part of Pompeii, known as Regio V, will eventually be made available for public display.