Soldiers in the city of Pompeii

I wrote this in response to a reader’s question on Academia.edu.  The reader had been reading an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis when she asked to know more about soldiers stationed in the city of Pompeii at the time of Mt Vesuvius’ (in)famous eruption of 79 CE.  The original text of my response has been edited and expanded to include additional commentary, as well as images.


To the best of my knowledge, we have no actual evidence of soldiers “stationed” at Pompeii. Of course, in the ancient world the posting of soldiers anywhere was very different from the way we think of stationing troops in the present day. With the exception of the three cohorts Cicero encountered at the start of the civil war of 49 BCE, we have no evidence of soldiers being stationed at Pompeii — and even in Cicero’s instance, it’s unknown who these soldiers were, where they had come from, or to which legion they belonged. The fact remains that Pompeii was not a strategically important or strategically significant city on the Bay of Naples the way that Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) would have been, so we’re left to wonder why anyone would ever station troops in what was otherwise a small Italian city.  One might actually posit that Cicero, writing to his wealthy and influential friend Atticus, might have contrived the story entirely for the purpose of appearing as grandiose and important as he thought himself.  If Marc Antony did not pursue Cicero the way Cicero makes it seem, it may be that Cicero invented the story in order to appear more important to the republic in its time of crisis.  Conversely, he may have been approached by what he transformed into three cohorts, rather like a fisherman who can’t help but exaggerate the size of his catch.  The fact that Cicero declined their commission is either a testament to his own timidity or as a way of explaining away the reason they were not with him later.

It is worth noting that during the Social War of the 90-80s BCE, Pompeii joined the anti-Roman confederation but was never sacked, which implies it was never taken by Roman forces. The archaeological record supports this, for there is evidence of destruction beneath the layer from 79 CE, when Vesuvius entombed the city in ash. The city itself most likely did not surrender until the federation itself surrendered en masse.  At that point, based on inscriptional testimonia, Pompeii appears to have been pardoned by Sulla‘s son, Faustus. That said, the fact that it was not taken should not make us think that the city was in any way formidable. The most likely explanation is that the city was simply ignored by Roman forces, who had “bigger fish to fry.”

Pompeii tavern "soldier"
Wall painting from VI.x.19.1, Pompeii.

As to your interest in soldiers at Pompeii at the time of the eruption of 79 CE, there is basically no evidence. What evidence we do have requires a great deal of interpretation in order to read it as soldiers, much of which is itself based on additional hypothetical arguments. The evidence essentially consists of two pieces of archaeology. The first is a painting from a small taverna which some authors believe depicts a group of soldiers playing at a game while one — wearing a red cloak — asks for more wine, as shown by a word bubble.

The problem is that the very idea that the group represents soldiers is based on the assumption that red cloaks signify legionaries, which is unquestionably false since there is abundant evidence that civilians in the empire wore tunics of all kinds of colors and material.  The idea that only soldiers wore red is one which plagues the realm of amateur historians and archaeologists — though it has spread to certain academics — but which is based entirely on presentist logic.  That is to say, the arguments are made from the perspective of 20th/21st century individuals and not those of the classical antiquity.  What we think is logical would not necessarily have been logical to a Roman or Greek two thousand years ago. So unless we except this notion of the red cloak, the evidence is entirely up in the air. It may also be that the image of soldiers playing and drinking at a bar was just a convention in the decor of taverna; after all, when was the last time the decoration at the bar depicted the events of that bar?  If the painting does indeed somehow depict real-world events in the city of Pompeii, and if we belief the red cloak argument, then even so we have only the image of a single soldier — and that on the foundation of two hypotheticals.  Hardly historical.

Tomb NG1 Pompeii belonging to the praetorian Lucius Betutius Niger, son of Quintus.
Tomb NG1 Pompeii belonging to the praetorian Lucius Betutius Niger, son of Quintus.

The other piece of evidence is, however, more intriguing. It consists of a series of inscriptions which mark the visits and burials of Praetorian Guardsmen. The Praetorian Guard were the personal bodyguards of the emperor and his household.  They were soldiers who may have initially been picked from among the legions and brought to Rome to serve in a body of nine cohorts (modestly 9,000 men), but may have also been recruited specifically for the Guard.  The inscriptions in question do not explain why the funeral markers were set up here as opposed to, say, Rome, or near to one of the many Imperial villas — hamlets/towns in their own right — which dotted the Bay of Naples.

That aside, Praetorians were evidently common enough around Pompeii, which seems unusual for what is otherwise an Italian backwater. In one case a Praetorian appears to have been from Pompeii, while the rest were from elsewhere in the Empire. All the same, this seems like an unusually strong concentration of soldiers from among a very small and particular group within the Roman army. We might expect the epitaphs of many more “regular” soldiers if there was a true military concentration in the area, but the burial of a handful of Praetorians implies, in my view, little more than accident and coincidence.

Besides that, there was undoubtedly some kind of civic militia, but these weren’t soldiers by any stretch of the imagination. These were just ruffians hired by the magistrates to enforce the law — and probably selectively and most certainly unevenly, too.

So in short, were there soldiers at Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. Or rather, the evidence indicates that their presence was unlikely.

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