St. Olaf professor unearths new solution to Pompeii mystery
St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Classics Kyle Helms’ research on ancient graffiti in Pompeii is generating media attention — and offering new theories about who once lived in the city best known for its devastating volcanic eruption.
Helms’ findings, which were published in the Journal of Roman Studies and recently covered by The Daily Beast, present a new understanding of who left behind graffiti that records a dialect of Old Arabic. The discovery is important because it reveals a new layer of connectedness between the Roman Empire and the countries it imperialized.
Until now, researchers have believed the graffiti was created by traveling merchants from modern-day Jordan. But through his research, Helms presents a different idea: the graffiti was written by Arab nomads serving in a Roman Legion.
Helms, who teaches Latin and Greek in St. Olaf’s Classics Department as well as a first-year seminar, says unearthing more long-buried secrets of Pompeii provides a more complex and interconnected picture of the Roman world.
“I still think it’s just amazing that, one day in late December, 69 CE in southern Italy, you could have heard Arabic being spoken as you walked toward the theater!” he tells the Daily Beast. “That’s just incredible! The Safaitic graffiti are also a good reminder that the Roman army might have looked and sounded a lot like its empire.”