Syphilis, Pompeii, & The New World

Syphilis is a very nasty disease. If left untreated the bacteria damages organs as well as attacking bones. It can also eat holes in your brain. In the 20th century, archaeologists and historians came to the conclusion that syphilis was a New World disease that hadn’t existed in Europe prior to Columbus’ famous voyage. The body casts of Pompeii have proved this idea to be incorrect. About a third of the bodies cast at Pompeii show congenital syphilis disease on the bones.

There’s a lot going on in that statement. First, casts of bodies at Pompeii. When Mt. Vesuvius ruptured in 79 CE, the Roman city of Pompeii which was nestled at the base of the volcano was devastated. A huge pyroclastic cloud enveloped the city, before lava bombs (yep those are real), lava, and and ash buried the city. A ton of people died where they stood.

That ash and hardened lava encapsulated the dead of Pompeii. The soft tissues rotted away, but the shape of the body remained as a sort of negative image. When Pompeii was rediscovered, scientists filled those negative images of the bodies with plaster creating casts of the bodies. The plaster hardened with the bones of the dead in them. For about 40 years, we’ve been running imaging tests on those casts.

Specialized MRIs and CT scans allow us to see details on the bones. Congenital syphilis is passed from a mother to her infant. The baby is born with the damaging Sexually Transmitted Disease (I believe STI[infection] is the revised term for it). Because prolonged exposure to the bacteria that causes syphilis causes weakening of the bones, we can examine even prehistoric bones and see if the person had syphilis.

We believed Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the New World (the Caribbean Islands) because no evidence of syphilis had been found in mass graves in Europe predating the 1500s. And there should be. Plague pits sprang up all over Europe at different times, during different epidemics; The Black Death, the Justinian Plague, not to mention the hundreds of cholera outbreaks that killed huge numbers in urban areas during the Middle Ages. Since a healthy person is more likely to survive an epidemic or outbreak of illness than someone who’s sick, plague pits should contain bodies that show definite evidence of syphilis.

And yet, aside from Pompeii, we don’t find that. So what exactly happened to syphilis between 79 CE where it was absolutely present among the citizens of Pompeii and the 1300s when the Black Death reduced Europe’s population by about 50% or so? Why don’t we find evidence of syphilis in plague pits.

I read an interesting theory recently about this. The Romans had better hygiene than nearly everybody from 600 CE to the 1870s CE. We know some diseases that cause high fever (like malaria and Scarlet Fever) will kill bacterial infections already present in the body. The theory states that because Rome practiced good hygiene, the rate of infection by diseases that cause extremely high fevers was lower during the days of Pompeii than in the Middle Ages. But because it was common for children as well as adults to come down with diseases that create high fevers in the Middle Ages, the rate of syphilis infection as well as the length of time it lasted in the body, may have kept syphilis from surviving long enough to cause organ or bone damage. (PS: both Cholera and Bubonic Plague cause fevers high enough to kill other bacteria in the body and these were fairly common diseases in the Middle Ages.)

6 thoughts on “Syphilis, Pompeii, & The New World

  1. Now this is attention grabbing title. I do have 1 question, why did the flesh not burn, melt, or dissolve when the lava hit it? (I know I should know this.)

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    1. Because lava doesn’t work like the movies. It is actually too hot and too slow moving to dissolve or melt flesh. It will give a nasty burn, but since it cools so quickly, it actually forms a protective layer against things are not highly combustible. It will catch a tree on fire, but concrete and stone can actually impede it’s progress to the point that it cools too rapidly to melt the concrete or stone. Iceland did dam lava flow from a volcano in the mid-1970s or 1980s and as lava hit the concrete walls, it instantly began to cool and ended up forming a crust that result in the lava creating its own dam and stopping the flow from overtaking a road. If you look at pictures of the damage to roads in Hawaii after Kilauea this year erupted, you’ll notice broken roads, but the breaks were the result of the weight of the cooled lava not the melting of the concrete. Human skin coming in contact with lava would burn, blister, and it would be pretty instantaneously a second or third degree burn, but it isn’t necessarily certain death because skin when heated begins to sweat and release salts which causes the lava to cool. If skin was prone to combustion, flames would erupt from places touched by lava, but we aren’t, so we don’t really burn or melt when we encounter it. Most lava related deaths are the result of shock from the intense pain of being burned by lava. There are survivor stories from volcanic eruptions. In the eruption of Pinatubo in the 1990s, there was a survivor story about a guy who walked along the crust of a lava flow to escape his house. He was wearing leather sandals and he ended up with second degree burns on his feet, but because leather doesn’t combust, the leather protected his feet and after healing and rehab, he only lost one foot to infection and survived a situation most of us would consider unsurvivable.


      1. Thank you. I’ve never given lava much thought, obviously. I just thought “molten rock, must burn everything in it’s path”. I can always count on you to further my education – I love it. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think most people give much thought to lava. I only know because I’m fascinated by natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions. Like you, I spent most of my life imagining that lava would melt, dissolve, and cause flames to erupt from everything it touched. I was quite surprised when I realize the death in Volcano of Stan was absolutely impossible.


      3. PS: Once lava is exposed to air, it averages a speed of less than 10 miles per hour. It erupts much faster, but the flow of it, once it is no longer in a lava tube and is free flowing on the ground is incredibly slow. Most people are capable of outrunning it.


      4. Well, the people of Pompeii were buried and suffocated under a blanket of relatively cool volcanic ash, much like the areas directly downwind from Mt. St. Helens. This is why they dropped where they stood rather than simply getting out of the way of slow moving lava flows. The ash compacted and preserved them in a very rare and unusual record of the time.

        As to the origin of syphilis, there are several different strains of this bacteria that may have been present in Africa as far back as 20,000 BC. This may have been the strain evidenced in Pompeii human remains while the strain brought back from the Americas was far more virulent and deadly. Still a few onion layers to peel back before we have a complete record of the syphilis origin that plagued Europe in the 1500s.

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