One day in 79 AD, an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii, a thriving Italian town of about ten thousand people, under a mound of volcanic ash. By destroying the town, the eruption preserved a treasure trove of data about life in the Roman empire in the first century. Archaeologists have been gathering and analyzing this data for 275 years, with much work still to be done.
When my wife Sherry and I had an opportunity to visit Pompeii in 2022, we marveled at some of the things that have been uncovered, including beautiful mosaics and frescoes. That trip has fueled our curiosity to learn more about this unique site.
When we asked our tour director if there were Christians in Pompeii, he recommended the book The Crosses of Pompeii (Fortress Press, 2016). The author, Baylor University professor Bruce Longenecker, presents evidence for the existence of a small but recognizable Christian presence in the town before the eruption.
Longenecker lays out his case carefully and systematically. First, Acts 28:13-14 tells us that there were Christians in Puteoli, 19 miles from Pompeii, when Paul was taken to Rome for his trial in the early 60s AD. Christians in Rome were heavily persecuted by the Emperor Nero in the 64-68 AD period, which actually created some public sympathy for Christians, so that the period from 68-79 AD was a relatively safe time for followers of Jesus.
In Pompeii itself, an earthquake in 62 or 63 AD already had brought widespread damage, including destruction of temples of the traditional gods. In the wake of the earthquake there was great interest in religion and in new religions, like the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. It was an auspicious time for Christianity to take root in Pompeii. Longenecker describes a number of Pompeiian artifacts that appear to be Christian: (1) a cross symbol that adorned the wall of a bakery; (2) the word “vivit” (“he lives”) written on a wall, with the final letters I and T combined to make a cross symbol; (3) Graffiti on the wall of a residential inn that says “audi Christianos pro vici” (“listen to the Christians for the good of the neighborhoods”); (4) a stamp ring belonging to a man named Meges that bears a cross symbol next to a symbol for eternal life; (5) nineteen cross symbols inscribed in the paving stones of the streets of Pompeii, with ten near the bakery and the other nine on a main street not far from the Christianos graffiti. The nineteen street crosses are in strategic locations near intersections and entrances (to the town and to buildings in it), places where people hoped for protection from the incursion of evil forces.
Pompeiians faced many fears and uncertainties in life, including threats of disease and natural disasters. Some of them may well have been attracted to news of a Savior who healed diseases and had conquered death. We can imagine that when the eruption of Vesuvius came, they may have died declaring, “Vivit!”
Doug Ward is a mathematics professor at Miami University, where he has taught since 1984. He is an elder at Church of the Messiah in Xenia and an avid reader.