Pompeii man hunched over in death. The most famous and iconic of the 2000 bodies excavated from the ruins in Pompeii
Of the 2000 bodies excavated in Pompeii, this is the most famous.

Imagine if what we thought we knew about Pompeii was wrong? An astonishing new discovery just dramatically changed what we know about the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in A.D 79.

Last year while excavations were being done on two villas that had been partially excavated in the 19th century, some interesting things surfaced.

First There Was Pliny The Younger

Up until this point the thinking was that Mt Vesuvius erupted on August 24th 79 A.D. This was based on the writings of 18 year old Pliny the Younger. He had been in Misenum at the home of his uncle, the writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder, when Vesuvius erupted. From the safety of the home he was able to watch everything happening across the Gulf of Naples.

While the Elder raced off in warships to rescue people (and ultimately to his own death) the Younger stayed at home to work on his studies. His written accounts of that day and the days to follow have given us much of the knowledge we have about what happened at Pompeii.

Related Post: 18 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pompeii

Interestingly up until that point there had been no word for volcano. No one had ever seen one before. Mt Vesuvius was a mountain covered in vineyards and farms. It had never blown before, so had no crater – the top was just the same as any other mountain.

17 years before, on February 5th 62 A.D there was a massive earthquake in Pompeii. Thought to be a 7.5 the earthquake felled buildings and caused much destruction. Seneca the Younger wrote:

This tremor was on 5 February in the consulship of Regulus and Verginius and it inflicted great devastation on Campania… sheep died and statues split. Some people have lost their minds and wander about in their madness.

By 79 A.D much of the restoration had been completed. More earthquakes had occurred, causing damage to buildings, and it is this subsequent repair work that has led to the new discovery.

Newly discovered frescoes in two villas being excavated in Pompeii
The two villas have beautiful frescoes, all of which are being carefully excavated and preserved by archaeologists

An Astonishing New Discovery

Archaeologists have discovered charcoal writing on the wall of one of the two villas mentioned above, thought to have been done by a builder or architect working on the home. It reads: XVI K NOV . This means the 16th day before the 1st day of November, or October 17th.

Newly discovered writing on the wall of a villa being excavated in Pompeii changes evrything we know about when Mt Vesuvius erupted
Archaeologists have discovered writing on the wall of a villa being excavated in Pompeii. It changes everything we know about the date of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius

This could have been done in the days before the eruption, possibly as a recording of the work he had completed. Italian authorities say this new discovery rewrites history, changing the belief that the eruption happened on the 24th of August.

Related Post: 8 Things You Must Do In Naples

The inscription and date was found with other bits of writing/graffiti on the walls of the atrium and corridor of the villa, much of it being quite raunchy, some even obscene. Which was pretty common in Pompeii.

A Question Of Pomegranates

Some scholars have believed for a long time that the date of the eruption was incorrect. In the past calcified remains of fresh pomegranates have been found at Pompeii. This suggests an autumn eruption, as pomegranate trees don’t mature by August instead having a season from October until January or February.

Other Treasures Found In The Villas

2000 year old mosaics discovered in Pompeii while 2 villas are excavated
2000 year old mosaics of crocodiles discovered during the excavation of the two villas

Other archaeological finds in the villas include frescoes of the gods Venus, Adonis, Paris and Eros, and mosaics depicting wild animals such as snakes, deer, lions and crocodiles. In one of the villas archaeologists found the skeletal remains of 5 people who had no doubt been hiding from the pumice and ash raining down from the volcano.

New discoveries in Pompeii. Archaeologists  just discovered 2000 year old mosaics in 2 villas being excavated
2000 year old mosaics survived earthquakes, the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and being buried for centuries.

Related Post: 10 Things You Absolutely Must Do In Ravello

How To Get There

Pompeii is a suburb of Naples, easily reached by taking the circumsuviana train from Naples train station to the Pompeii Scavi stop. It is an easy day trip from Rome (only 1 hour and 20 minutes on the high speed train) and is a quick trip by train from Sorrento.

If you take the time to visit Pompeii (highly recommended) after visiting the ruins take the circumsuviana train three stops towards Naples to the Ercolano stop and walk to the ruins at Herculaneum. They are quite different to those in Pompeii, and complete the picture of what life looked like back then and what the homes in Pompeii would have looked like were they still standing. It’s quite incredible.

There are so many amazing things to see and do in Rome.

Today I want to tell you about a fantastic place that you may want to fit into your Rome itinerary. It is located along the Appian Way at the 3 mile marker, so is near the catacombs of San Callisto and San Sebastiano.

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella

The tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way in Rome
The tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way in Rome

This ancient Roman mausoleum dominates the view along this particular stretch of the Appian Way, with its huge tower and castle-like fortifications. One of the best preserved and most visited monuments along the Appian Way, it is intriguing and fascinating, and like everything in Rome, has a great back story.

Related Post: Unusual Things To Do In Rome: The Pyramid of Cestius

Who Was Caecilia Metella?

This particular Caecila Metella (there were several) was born into one of the wealthiest families in ancient Rome. The Metella family wealth and power dated back to the 3rd century B.C and lasted until the end of the Republic. The family held both political power and important military seats.

In that time female names were often taken from the father’s family tree, so the Caecilius Metellus clan had multiple Caecilia Mettelas. Every daughter in the family had the same name, as if they had no importance at all, and were just human chattels. The males were given first names – her father was Quinicus Caecilius Metellus. This Caecilia was born around 100 B.C and was married to a powerful Roman general and politician who was actually instrumental in the conversion of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. His name was Marcus Licinius Crassus

Positioned as it was on the highest and most prominent point on the Appian Way, this glorious structure could be seen for miles. You could be forgiven for thinking it was built as a testament to a husband’s inconsolable grief at the loss of his wife, but it wasn’t. We don’t know the reason for her death or even exactly when she died. We don’t actually know anything much about her, and her mausoleum gives us no clues either. Which is a little odd. Well, actually it tells us two things in an inscription on the wall.

But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Related Post: 10 Things You Absolutely MUST Do In Rome

The Mausoleum

The Tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way in Rome

The tomb or mausoleum is made up of a rotunda sitting atop a square podium, with the Caetani Castle attached to the back. The podium is 8.3 meters tall and the cylindrical drum rotunda standing on it is another 12 meters tall. The diameter of the drum is 29.5 meters or 100 Roman feet. Caecilia’s sarcophagus originally sat in a funerary sill inside wall of the massive tower, facing the Appian Way, but now calls the Palazzo Farnese home.

Although as a side note, there is some dispute over whether this is in fact Caecilia’s sarcophagus. At the time of her death cremation was the norm, so her ashes would have been placed in a funerary urn. Also a study that was done on the sarcophagus suggests it dates to 180 A.D. But who knows?

The exterior of the mausoleum was made of travertine. The upper level of the tower was decorated with a marble frieze depicting wreaths and the skulls of oxen, both of which were a reference to sacrifices made to the Roman gods. Quite a masculine motif – not what we would expect for a tomb dedicated to a woman. The relief in the center is also very masculine, depicting a helmet, shields and a prisoner. The only nod to Caecilia is on the inscription:

inscription on the Tomb of Caecilia Metella in Rome

CAECILIAE Q.CRETICI.F METELLAE.CRASSI

Which translated reads Caecilia, daughter of Quinicus Metellus Creticus and wife of Crassus. (The Creticus part refers to her father having conquered Crete.)

Not beloved wife and daughter, not any descriptors of her. Just an indication that she was the daughter of one man and wife of the next, like a possession passed around.

The Fortress

The Cetani castle at the Tomb of Caecilia Metella in Rome

In the middle ages the fortress was built, eventually becoming the Cetani Castle. The earth covered, rounded roof of the mausoleum had battlements built onto it and it became an important fortress, guarding the Appian Way and the southern entrance into Rome. The castle houses a museum and has ancient statues throughout the courtyards

Why Build the Mausoleum?

Tomb of Caecilia Matella on the Appian Way in Rome

So why build this huge, spectacular mausoleum for a woman not important enough to have her own name? It is thought to have been built towards the end of the 1st century B.C, sometime after Caecilia’s death, but in all likelihood not to celebrate her. Her death probably coincided time wise with the opportunity to show off the wealth and power and greatness of this eminent family, and celebrate the glory of the men named on the inscription.

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A single ticket is valid for 7 days and gets you into the Baths of Caracalla, the Villa of the Quintilii and the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. A great way to enjoy the Appian Way is by bicycle, and the area surrounding the Tomb of Caecilia Metella and the Cetani Castle is fabulous both for taking photos and for having picnics!

Bonus Content

Would you like to go wine tasting in Rome but don’t know where to go?

I have three favorite places to go wine tasting in the Eternal City. Each is quite different from the next and each offers a very different experience. I have made a downloadable PDF with all the information for you, as well as some tips for Walking Wine Tours. (If you are subscribed to my newsletter this will already be in your inbox) Get your Wine Tasting In Rome PDF Here

Have you ever been to Europe in December? It is magnificent. From bundling up in the winter chill to the smell of chestnuts roasting on the street corners to the Christmas celebrations and decorations, it really is wonderful.

At one point I was going to be working in London at the beginning of December and had planned a quick romp over to the continent immediately after, but the job got cancelled and so this year I am sitting it out at home.

For years I have been trying to convince my son that we need to have Christmas in San Gimignano, but he won’t have it. To him (understandably) Christmas is something that happens at our house, so if I am lucky enough to get over there it is a trip squeezed in between his school events and pre-Christmas parties. I didn’t do any December traveling while he was little, but the past few years it has worked out perfectly.

Christmas in San Gimignano, Italy. Learn about Christmas traditions in Italy, and why you need to visit Italy in December
December in San Gimignano, Tuscany

If you are in a space in your life where you can duck away for a week or two, December is a glorious month to travel to Italy for an entirely different experience. It is also a great time to take advantage of your airline frequent flier miles and get an off-season trip for next to nothing. The closer you get to Christmas the more tricky the flights get, with people flying home in each direction for the holiday, but the middle weeks of December can be a brilliant time to travel.

Related Post: How To Fly Around The World For Free

Why You Should Visit Italy In December (at least once in your life!)

1. The Crowds Are Gone

Florence at night in December. The tourists are gone, it's just the locals, the Christmas lights and the Christmas spirit
Strolling the Corsa in Florence in December, the tourists are gone, it’s just me and the locals

This alone makes it worth the trip! Your Italian experience is so different when the crowds are gone. You can walk freely everywhere without the streets being full of tour groups, which lets you really appreciate the beauty that to a degree gets lost or minimized when you are hustling through a crowd. I’m in love with Florence at any time of year, but December there is just incredible. When you can wander around and see the streets only populated by the Florentines and yourself you get a whole new appreciation for the city. It’s the same with pretty much everywhere.

2. You Don’t Need To Wait In Line

With the crowds gone there are suddenly no lines to get into the big attractions. Instead of trying to look at The Birth of Venus over someone’s shoulder you have it all to yourself.

Florence Duome from the tower in Palazzo Vecchio on a hazy December afternoon
The view from the tower at Palazzo Vecchio on a December afternoon with no crowds. I never do this in the summer because there are just too many people

When you’re not wasting hours of your vacation time standing in lines waiting to get in, you can wander at leisure through as many museums and churches as you want. It’s quite remarkable just how much more you can see and do when there are no lines. I find I do double or more, but at a relaxed and leisurely pace.

Humans are not supposed to be herded like cattle, and it wasn’t until I was meandering through museums unfettered that I realized just how stressful it can be when you are at the same place while it is crowded!

As much as I love the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s I never go with my Glam Italia Tour groups – I hand them off to my local guide and meet back up with them at the end. During the normal travel season more than 25,000 people go through there each day, so it is always packed, which can be quite stressful. In order to move that many people through the guards have to keep hustling everyone along, so much of the time you can’t even look at all the things you want to see. Rather than stop and really have a good look at the tapestries, art work and treasures, you are in motion, moving on.

I learned along the way to plan a few hours of downtime after the Vatican tour for my groups to decompress.

One of my friends sent me photos from the Vatican Museums last December. She was strolling around, taking everything in at her own pace, with very few other people there.

3. The Prices Go Down

I love a bargain, so I extra love traveling to Italy in the off-season. The cost of everything goes way down. When the cost of accommodation drops you have far more money for shopping! Between using frequent flier miles to get there and then having fabulous accommodation for a fraction of the price, the trip becomes really economical.

4. You Can Escape The Heat

As much as I adore spending my summers in Italy with my Glam Italia Tours there are some places that I don’t go to because the heat gets overwhelming. For example I normally don’t take my groups to Pompeii during the summer months because it is just so very hot and dusty. The last time I took a tour group there was in September a few years back. It was so hot and humid that I actually started feeling sick and thought I might pass out.

In December though it is amazing! You can spend much more time there just wandering and really taking it all in. It’s the same with the Valley of the Temples just outside of Agrigento in Sicily. I don’t want my travelers passing out from the heat and I don’t want to get heat sickness, so I seldom go there in the summer. December though is perfect! You can be there for as many hours as you want, not only seeing everything but also really enjoying the more temperate weather.

5. The Food!

Frankly, the food is reason enough to go in December! The pre-Christmas foods, the hearty winter soups and the heavier meals that are too much on hot summer days are fantastic in December.

Christmas Markets in Italy, Sicilan cookies at the Christmas markets in salerno, Italy
Sicilian Christmas cookies at the Christmas markets in Salerno, Italy

Every region has its own Christmas specialty foods, from meals to pastries and cookies, things that only show up at this time of year. You can eat them all too, because calories don’t count in Italy!

I tend to spend a lot of time in Tuscany and I love the chilly afternoons and early sunsets in December. One of my favorite things is wandering in to a little trattoria at the end of the day and ordering a bowl of chunky tomato and bread soup. It’s one of those things that loses its magic on a hot summer’s day but is so perfect in winter.

I also love all the Sicilian Christmas cookies and pastries that show up everywhere. I bring home bags of them – they are so unique and wonderful.

Related Post: Gift Ideas For Travelers who Love Italy

6. The Christmas Spirit and Atmosphere

Can I just say I am so fed up with all the Jingle Bells, Ho Ho Ho and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town songs blasting out of every shop, elevator and parking lot loud speaker, from the split second Halloween is over?? The holiday season has become more commercialized than ever and the effort to separate me from my money is exhausting.

When I spend time in Italy in December I fall in love with the Christmas season all over again. Christmas over there isn’t about Santa Claus, it’s about the birth of Jesus, so the decorations, the music, the celebration is completely different.

Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas or are not particularly religious, it is completely charming, and well worth experiencing. I love learning about the different Christmas traditions around the world. I grew up in New Zealand where it is summertime in December, so my childhood Christmas memories are quite different.

Last year I was in Barcelona in December, and their poop based Christmas traditions blew my mind! Read about them here: What The Hell Is Caga Tio??

Italy has wonderful Christmas traditions, and the way the community pulls together to celebrate them is just gorgeous.

7. The Christmas Markets

Christmas Markets in Italy, the market in Trento
Just like a fairytale! The Christmas market in Trento, Italy

European Christmas Markets are spectacular. Anywhere you go they are wonderful, but I particularly love the markets in Italy. Visually wonderful, especially up north where the towns turn into fairytale winter wonderlands, every city, town and village hosts Christmas markets. The atmosphere, the smells, the foods, the decorations and crafts to purchase – it is like every Christmas dream you have ever had.

Some have live nativity scenes, some have carousels and acrobats. All have local delicacies, hot drinks, booths filled with Christmas treasures, and the backdrop of the incredible beauty of Italy. I just can’t get enough of them!

Bonus Info:

Want to know which are the 10 Best Christmas Markets in Italy? This post is already too long, so I have made a separate PDF that you can download, listing the best Christmas markets in Italy, where they are, what they are famous for and why you need to go see them. Each market has photos attached so you can see how beautiful they are!

If you have already signed up for my newsletter this list will be in your email inbox today, so keep an eye out for it! (and you don’t need to request this PDF to get it)

If you are not on my newsletter list and would like the 10 Best Christmas Markets In Italy PDF CLICK HERE.