Pompeii victims reveal details about Roman life

Published on December 14th, 2010 | by Sevaan Franks

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The city of Pompeii continues to reveal details about Roman life, including the oldest documented case of syphilis, before it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD.

For a start, we often imagine that the Romans, or anyone in the past for that matter, were all much shorter than we are. Well, not so these people.

In fact, on average, they are taller than the population of modern Naples.

We also imagine that the Romans would have died young. Again, this is another myth – as these skeletons show. There are plenty of middle-aged to elderly people among them.

The truth is that childhood was the really dangerous time. All kinds of illnesses that we now vaccinate against or can easily cure with antibiotics were devastating killers.

Only half the population would have made it to the age of 10. But if you got that far, you could look forward to a reasonable life expectancy in our terms.

Interestingly, infectious diseases leave tell-tale marks and lines in the enamel of children’s teeth. Many of the skeletons in the cellar show these – a visual history of the illnesses these people had survived.

There are some more curious – and startling – discoveries too.

The skeletons of a pair of twins show what were almost certainly the signs of congenital syphilis. If that is correct, then it puts paid to the usual idea that the disease was brought back to Europe from the New World by Christopher Columbus and his sailors in the 15th Century.

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