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HISTORY

Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

READ ALSO: 8 things you probably didn’t know about the Romans

“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death

Dante Alighieri is chiefly remembered as the author of the Divine Comedy and as the father of the Italian language. On the 700th anniversary of his death in the night between September 13 to 14th, 1321, here are five things to know about the titan of world literature.

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

‘Father of Italian language’

Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time – rather than Latin – to write his masterpiece.

The “Divine Comedy”, originally called simply “Comedy”, is an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, published in several stages in the early 14th century.

Its popularity led other medieval Italian authors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, to also write in the vernacular, laying the literary foundations of Italian.

It is no coincidence that the institute for spreading Italian language and culture abroad is called the “Dante Alighieri Society.”

As part of 700th anniversary events this year, Italy is also preparing to open a Museum of the Italian Language in Florence, housed within the Santa Maria Novella church complex.

READ ALSO: Italian lawyers seek justice for Dante – 700 years after his death

A statue of Dante Alighieri by Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP.
On par with Shakespeare
The “Divine Comedy” is a poem, a personal tale of redemption, a treaty on human virtue, as well as one of the most influential pieces of science fiction.

Its first section, the “Inferno” (Hell) – with its circles of hell wherepunishments are inflicted on those having committed the seven deadly sins – still shapes the way we imagine the afterlife, at least in Christian terms.

British poet T.S. Eliot famously said: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges considered the “Divine Comedy” to be “the best book literature has ever achieved.”

Dante in popular culture

Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers and cartoonists have been inspired by the “Divine Comedy”, particularly the “Inferno”.

These include everyone from Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dali and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to the creators of X-Men comic books and novelist Dan Brown.

 Auguste Rodin’s famous “The Kiss” sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers Dante meets in the second circle of hell.

The “Divine Comedy” was also a key inspiration for Oscar-nominated thriller “Se7en”, for a popular video game (“Dante’s Inferno”), while Dante is quoted in popular TV series such as “Mad Men”.

Bret Easton Ellis’ black comedy “American Psycho” opens with the epigraph “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” – one of the most-used quotes from the “Inferno”.

A mural depicting Dante Alighieri on a storefront shutter in Florence. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Durante, but call me Dante

Like many other greats from Italy’s cultural past – Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo – Dante is usually known only by his first name, which is a diminutive of “Durante.”

He was born in Florence in 1265, exiled in 1302, and he died in Ravenna, on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, on September 13 or 14, 1321.

READ ALSO: Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think

Hailing from a wealthy family, albeit not aristocratic, Dante never worked for a living and dabbled in politics as well as literature, philosophy and
cosmology.

He had at least three children with his wife Gemma Donati, but his lifelong muse was another woman, Beatrice, who appears in the “Divine Comedy” as his guide in heaven.

Dante the politician

Dante was active in politics, serving as one of Florence’s nine elected rulers, or priors, for a regular two-month term in 1300.

At the time, Italian cities were constantly on the verge of civil war between Guelfs, the papal faction, and Ghibellines, who sided with Holy Roman
emperors.

Dante started out as a Guelf, but after being exiled with the indirect help of Pope Boniface VIII, he became increasingly critical of papal encroachment in political affairs.

He was put on trial and banished from Florence after a new regime took over the city and persecuted its old ruling class, and he remained an exile until his death.

In 1302, a judge ordered Dante and his allies to be burnt at the stake if they tried to come back. The sentence was later changed to death by beheading.

In the “Divine Comedy”, the poet takes the opportunity to settle scores with many of his foes, notably reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.

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