Recently I rewrote a podcast I had done on Pompeii and re-recorded it. You can find it in the below player, alternatively download it from wherever you get your podcasts from. Just search for Ancient History Hound. Much of the content in this article is in the podcast, but I also discuss Pompeii in the lead up to the eruption, so perhaps give it a listen.
Pompeii has long been a place where fascination is tempered by a solemn awareness of what happened in 79 CE. It’s capable of offering unique insights but also able to mislead. On that point, perhaps I should start with the date of the eruption.
The 24th August 79 CE has long been the point in time tied to the destruction of Pompeii, yet there has been a growing debate over whether this date is accurate. In 2018 a charcoal scribble on a wall was found. It included a date which translates as the 17th October in our modern calendar. This leaves us with three possibilities – the first being that this was written in the year 78 CE which in itself is problematic as it is unlikely that a charcoal marking would have survived that long. The second possibility, assuming that the writing is genuine, is that the person who wrote it got the date wrong. The third? That the traditional date is wrong.
Other arguments sit alongside this. Harvested materials were found which wouldn’t have been in storage until after August and there was even wind analysis done, where the debris fallout matched wind patterns of later Autumn.
Set against this is the evidence for the date being accurate, however, it’s not substantial. It’s a reference in a letter 25 years after the event by Pliny. Other authors, such as Dio Cassius suggest alternative dates.
For the premise of this piece I am going to accept the traditional date of the 24th August, though I wonder if one day this will become more token and less factual.
Sunrise at this time of year is around 06:30, which means that for many the day had already started. Residents may have noticed a few small puffs from the mountain, or perhaps not. Vesuvius wasn’t an active volcano and to those in Pompeii it was simply a large mountain, a dominating feature but one which had very fertile slopes.
Soon things developed; in the early afternoon, around 13:00, Vesuvius erupted proper. The thermal energy released was the equivalent of 100,000 Hiroshima events. Initially the force and energy went upwards, the ash column eventually reaching a height of around 20 miles. To give some perspective, the cruising altitude of most commercial aircraft is 5.5-7.5 miles high.
And there it stood, a huge warning beacon of what was to come. As the column reached higher it flattened out, an umbrella guaranteeing not safety from the elements but doom.
After half an hour pumice started falling. I can’t imagine many people consider pumice as lethal. Perhaps to dead skin on feet, but not really something to shriek in terror from. Perhaps those in Pompeii were concerned but considered this as bad as it was going to get? They were wrong, if you wanted to leave you would need to. Fast.
Map of the ash fall from Vesuvius.
Pumice fell at a rate of around 15cm/h. This doesn’t sound much but it’s estimated that 40cms (16″) of pumice on a roof would cause it to collapse and here was the early threat. Those who had rushed inside to avoid the hot debris (anything debris 1.6cm in diameter would have been warm, the larger the hotter) may have initially found shelter but by late afternoon the roofs of buildings would have started to collapse under the weight, and homes became tombs.
Studies estimated that roughly a third of the discovered victims of Vesuvius died this way (approximately 345 people). Smashed foreheads and rubble giving a clue as to their demise. If the falling masonry killed you outright you might be lucky, as previously mentioned the debris was hot (the pumice heating the roof tiles to 120–140 °C) and as such some people trapped it underneath may have been slowly cooked alive. Fires would have broken out in the darkness which engulfed the city. Come late afternoon escape would have been nigh on impossible. The ash cloud blotted out any light and most routes were choked with large amounts of ash, pumice, bodies and rubble. Estimates have given that up to 3 metres of pumice and debris had collected in Pompeii. Those left were trapped.
Early morning on the 25th and the pumice stopped falling, assuming one could notice. The heat and dust in the air lowered both moisture and oxygen, meaning that anyone alive would be gasping for breath. Then came the real horror. It was now a case of when, not if.
The volcanic column firing into the sky had destabilised and started to fail. It collapsed in six instances, each becoming a pyroclastic density current (PDC) or pyroclastic flow. This is an avalanche of super-heated gas, ash and rocks, travelling up to 450mph (700km/h), heated up to 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). According to this study the PDCs which affected both Pompeii and Herculaneum travelled quite slowly, (18-28 mph) but they were still incredibly hot, and it was the heat which was the primary cause of deaths. At Pompeii it’s estimated that the temperature reached 250°–300°C.
Of the six PDCs the first three had either not reached Pompeii or had been stayed by the north wall. It was the fourth PDC, arriving at dawn on the 25th, which breached the wall and ended anyone who had survived until then. The saving grace was that given the temperature death resulted in fractions of a second.
Herculaneum was spared the initial fall of pumice, the winds that day blowing the cloud over in the direction of Pompeii. There must have been an acceptance that something wasn’t right, as even without the pumice the noise and sight of the eruption seemed to have incited the locals to flee. We know this because of where many of the remains of the inhabitants were found, not in the houses but in the arches on the coastline of the day. Several hundred bodies were found, presumably waiting for an opportunity to escape. Those who had managed to get on a boat before midnight after the eruption had started may have stood a chance. Those who hadn’t were met at 01:00 on the 25th by the first PDC following the collapse of the column. This one was earlier than the ones which reached Pompeii and it was also much hotter, reaching temperatures of 500˚C.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum have benefitted from experts across several disciplines inputting to provide a comprehensive picture of what likely happened there. One such instance is the stratification of Pompeii. This was caused, broadly speaking, by two separate processes. The first was the fall of pumice, which caused building collapse and partially buried it. The second was the PDCs which have their own signature debris. If you cut through a section of the material covering Pompeii you could distinguish which of these caused each layer.
Stratification at Pompeii. See paper ‘Impact of the AD 79 explosive eruption on Pompeii’ (listed at end).
This is how the earlier victims were able to be distinguished, their remains covered by that early fall of pumice. The later PDCs operated in a very different way, each was a much quicker and immediate process. Remains found in a particular PDC layer were likely killed by it. In Pompeii the remains of 650 people were found in the PDC layers. If building collapse can be ruled out, what was the likely cause of their death?
Cadaveric Spasms and the Pugilistic Pose.
One common stance is one where the victim holds their hands out in front of them and it was initially thought that this indicated that they were defending themselves from attack, perhaps from looters. However, at best this was an awkward diagnosis as the period of the PDCs clearly wasn’t one particularly conducive to looting. For a start, much of Pompeii was either buried or inaccessible. Added to this would looting be an activity in mind? I’d wager that anyone left was far more concerned with saving themselves.
Two possibilities have more recently be suggested, the pugilistic pose and the cadaveric spasm.
Of the pugilistic pose one online medical dictionary I came across defined it as:
“A ‘defensive’ position fancifully likened to that adopted by pugilists (boxers), which is typically seen in severely burned bodies, characterised by flexion of elbows, knees, hip, and neck, and clenching of hand into a fist; it is caused by high-temperatures in fire, resulting in muscle stiffening and shortening; it occurs even if the person was dead before the fire”.
The cadaveric spasm is similar, if not slightly different. This is where a muscle group is flexed in the manner at the time of death. For example, in victims of drowning the hands might still be clenched onto some weeds, but there isn’t a singular cause given. Exposure to near instant high temperatures would provide a viable candidate.
Victims at Pompeii.
Understanding the stages of the eruption allows us to fully realise the differing deaths which those there met. Yet amongst the macabre statistics there is reason for optimism. In her book on Pompeii Professor Mary Beard suggests a population ranging between 6,400 and 30,000 in Pompeii at this time. It’s estimated that 2,000 at most died (Pompeii is still being excavated). If we take a middling figure of 15,000 and make the obvious assumption that no-one survived it suggests the majority of the residents had left prior to the main eruption.
This brings in two wider points, the first that those residing there had realised something was up in the period leading to the eruption. Even without scientific equipment the signs could have been evident – deformation of the landscape near the volcano, tremors and the like may have stimulated a mini-exodus. Remember that the earthquake of 62 CE was well within living memory and even on the day of the 24th there was time to leave once eruption started.
The second point leads on from this, Pompeii offers a paradox in that we rely on it for a glimpse of life in antiquity – a snapshot of life in 79 CE which was frozen and left for later eyes. Yet it may mislead as much as inform. If we consider the mass movement of residents it would be pertinent to ask to what extent does this change what was left? Think of a rich family leaving in the time prior to the eruption. They would take their prized goods with them, likely leaving little behind. How are we to understand their residence once it is uncovered? A normal residence or one which anyone of the time would think of as empty?
Added to this is that Pompeii wasn’t sealed in time until it was rediscovered in the modern era. There are small tunnels which were dug by those looking for trinkets to steal and sell, some walls even had ‘tunnelled’ written on them by later generations. The skeleton of a child was discovered in one such tunnel, the tragic victim of a collapse.
Having visited Pompeii it feels very much woven with contradiction. Here’s a place of disaster and mass loss of life yet it somehow also sidesteps this and urges you to walk with around it inquisitive strides, seemingly in defiance of this single inescapable fact. It’s incredibly detailed, with jaw-dropping views and round the corner obscene graffiti.
All of this and there’s still more to excavate. Who knows what might be found which gives Pompeii another twist in its story. Not all secrets stay in the grave.
Papers used and cited.
Giuseppe Luongo,Annamaria Perrotta,Claudio Scarpati,Ernesto De Carolis,Giovanni Patricelli,Annamaria Ciarallo. Impact of the AD 79 explosive eruption on Pompeii. Causes of the deaths of the inhabitants inferred by stratigraphic analysis and areal distribution of the human casualties. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal research. Vol 126.
L, Giacomelli. A, Perrotta. Scandone, Roberto. Scarpati, Claudio. The eruption of Vesuvius of 79 AD and its impact on human environment in Pompeii.
Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo. Pierpaolo Petrone. Lucia Pappalardo. Fabio M. Guarino. Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii.