Pompeii: a remarkable window into ancient Roman life

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius wiped out Pompeii in a suffocating cloud of ash, but, as historian Daisy Dunn explores, the buildings and remains buried beneath the debris provide a remarkable window into ancient Roman life

'The last Day of Pompeii', 1833. Briullov, Karl Pavlovich (1799-1852). Found in the collection of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Early one afternoon in the year AD 79, an enormous cloud began to rise from Mount Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples. The cloud was initially white, but steadily turning grey, and shaped like an umbrella pine tree, causing one onlooker, the 17-year-old Pliny the Younger, to observe: “It was raised high on a kind of very tall trunk and spread out into branches.”

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The teenager was staying with his mother and uncle in the port town of Misenum, around 19 miles fromVesuvius. Situated on the opposite side of the bay from the city of Pompeii – in the shadow of the mountain – Misenum was home to one of Rome’s fleets. From there, Pliny the Younger and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, the fleet’s commander, were more intrigued than concerned by the peculiar cloud. The older man, in fact, decided he wanted a closer look.

Considered an authority in natural science after writing a multi-volumed tome, Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder left the villa intent on sailing across the bay to obtain a good view. He asked his nephew whether he would like to accompany him, but the teenager declined, preferring to stay behind with his mother and continue with his studies. As Pliny the Elder prepared to set out alone, he received a message from a friend urging him for help. She lived near Vesuvius and was trapped. The only means of escape, she said, was by boat, so Pliny the Elder chose to launch his large galleys, quadriremes, to begin evacuating people.

The cloud was not a phenomenon merely to gaze at, he now realised, but a sign of danger ahead. He had not known that Vesuvius was a volcano. There was indeed little reason for anyone at the time to suspect that the vineyard-covered mountain could be deadly, seeing that it had been dormant for several centuries before, finally, it erupted that afternoon.

Vesuvius and Pompeii
Vesuvius is still an active volcano, although it is much more closely monitored now than in AD 79. (Image by Getty Images)

Although this would come as a total shock to those who lived in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other towns of Campania, the volcano had been stirring for years. A devastating earthquake had struck the region in either AD 62 or 63 and caused severe damage, demolishing temples, baths and other buildings. No one was to know this was connected to magma rising inside Vesuvius. Earth tremors followed and continued, so much so that when they intensified in the days leading up to the eruption, Pliny the Younger noted that this was “not particularly frightening because they were so commonplace”. People simply rebuilt what had been damaged and carried on as normal.

The vineyard-covered mountain lay dormant for several centuries before that afternoon

Yet by the time Pliny the Elder and his fleet were sailing across the bay, it had became increasingly clear that carrying on as normal was no longer an option. The volcanic cloud had blocked out the Sun as it released a vast quantity of pumice, which, although light and porous by nature, was soon raining down, and at such a rate that it floated on, and clogged, the water. The ships could not reach as far as hoped, so the helmsmen put in where they could – at Stabiae, a town just south of Pompeii.

Plaster casts, seen here during restoration efforts, preserved the final moments of the terrified people of Pompeii (Photo by Roberta Basile/KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images)
Plaster casts, seen here during restoration efforts, preserved the final moments of the terrified people of Pompeii (Photo by Roberta Basile/KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images)

Endless night

Pliny the Elder disembarked to find the people beginning to panic. He saw one of his friends hastily loading his possessions aboard a ship in the hope of escaping, if only the wind settled. In an attempt to calm him down, Pliny the Elder remained a figure of stoicism. He had a bath, joined his friend for dinner and went to sleep in his villa. In the night, however, the household was awoken by powerful earth tremors. Pliny the Elder decided they should leave before the mounting pumice sealed them inside, so with a pillow on his head to protect himself from falling debris, he made his way to the coast.

Unable to sustain its own weight any longer, the enormous cloud had collapsed and released a series of burning avalanche-like waves – called pyroclastic surges – of volcanic ash, gas and rock over the region.

Back in Misenum, Pliny the Younger described the hysteria at this sight. He had tried to escape with his mother, but feared being trampled by the terrified crowds. They watched “a terrifying black cloud, burst by twisting, quaking flickers of flame” with “long fiery tongues, like lightning, only bigger”.

The enormous cloud had collapsed and released a series of burning avalanche-like waves of volcanic ash, gas and rock over the region

Amidst the screaming and wailing, he saw people lift their hands to the gods, although most “reasoned that there were now no gods anywhere and that the night would last for ever and ever across the universe”. Pliny the Younger was at a comparatively safe distance from the volcano in Misenum – the situation had become desperate across the bay.

Herculaneum, at the base of Vesuvius, was engulfed by the first two pyroclastic surges. Hundreds of people had tried to take cover inside the boat houses along the coast, only for currents of magma and gas to hurtle towards them at a temperature of 400 degrees Celsius. They perished in the heat. Those in Pompeii suffered the force of three further surges. These killed everyone left by heat or asphyxiation, and completed the burial of the city.

Bacchus, god of wine, in front of Vesuvius
Bacchus, god of wine, in front of Vesuvius – which changed shape due to the force of the eruption. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

There is no surviving eyewitness account of the scenes in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pliny the Younger would, in later life, write down what happened in Misenum and Stabiae, where his uncle had ventured in the midst of the eruption. Standing on the coast, Pliny the Elder had found the sea too wild to escape, and died, apparently asphyxiated by a volcanic cloud.

Relying on both his memory and reports obtained after the disaster, Pliny the Younger wrote two letters to his friend, the Roman historian Tacitus, which remain the only first-hand accounts of the eruption. Although nearly 30 years had passed by the time Pliny the Younger composed them, he was mindful of being accurate and his words are certainly supported by the archaeological findings. His description of a large pine tree-shaped cloud rising and then collapsing with heavy pumice fall is particularly admirable. The archaeological evidence also provides additional information about the deaths – and more importantly, the lives – of the ancient citizens of Pompeii.

Victims huddled together in comfort as the end came

We know that the eruption gave little opportunity for Pompeians to escape. Those who perished were buried under a layer of pumice and ash that reached up to 20 metres thick. The decomposition of their bodies over the centuries left cavities in the volcanic deposit, into which a 19th century archaeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli poured plaster in order to make casts of their final poses. Many victims were found to be huddled together to comfort one another as the end came.

Well over 1,000 bodies have been discovered at Pompeii to date, and as sections of the city have yet to be excavated it is likely that more will come to light. It is, however, clear that many people did manage to get away. While estimates of Pompeii’s population size vary, it is thought that between 10,000 and 15,000 lived there at the time of the eruption, suggesting that the majority of Pompeians fled the volcano in time.

Pompeii: a vibrant centre

In spite of the substantial damage caused by the earthquake less than two decades before the eruption, Pompeii was a flourishing destination for the wealthy and distinguished. At a little over 160 acres, the city was dwarfed by Rome, which may have housed in excess of a million people. But Pompeii had become a vibrant centre with well-built roads, baths, theatres, bakeries and food bars and stalls. Some scholars believe the name ‘Pompeii’ derives from the ancient word pompe, meaning ‘five’, a result of the city being founded when five villages joined together.

Pompeii’s amphitheatre
Pompeii’s amphitheatre could seat up to 20,000 people. (Image by Getty Images)

Pompeians lived in villas built on the roadsides, with some having balconies on the first floor so they could watch the goings-on below. Visitors entered the villa at the atrium, at the centre of which was an impluvium, or sunken pool, to collect rain water. Larger houses would also have their own water supply, while public fountains provided residents with a further source of refreshment. All were fed by an aqueduct attached to the mighty Aqua Augusta. Off the atrium of a building was a tablinum, or study, for private work and business, as well as bedrooms and other spaces.

This part of Italy was a major exporter of wine, but the grapevines would be blackened

Some homes had businesses built into them. The front of a villa, for example, might serve as a shop. In Pompeii was a large fullonica, where people sent their dirty laundry, particularly their togas, to be cleaned and pressed. To help brighten the whites, the laundry was soaked in urine. Clothes became filthy easily, not least as people ate mainly with their hands. While the poorer members of society frequented the street bars, the rich preferred to dine in their own triclinium, or dining room, so-named for the three couches arranged along the perimeter. Men and women reclined on these to feast on delicacies, such as dormice stuffed with pork meat. Dinners ran, it was said, ab ovo usque ad mala, or ‘from the egg to the apples’ – where eggs came as hors d’oeuvres at the beginning, and fresh food like figs, nuts and apples were served for dessert.

In the shadow of Vesuvius

As in the rest of the empire, many people in Pompeii kept slaves. Some had a handful, but wealthier households could own hundreds. Pliny the Younger, having survived the volcanic disaster and inherited his uncle’s estate, became a wealthy lawyer and politician with various homes across Italy, all of them maintained by at least 500 slaves. They could win their freedom, or be ‘released from the hand’ of their master, and as ‘freedmen’ build comfortable and sometimes extravagant lives for themselves.

Pompeii was thriving before the eruption as a centre for viticulture – the growing of grapes for wine, for which Campania was rightly famous. This part of Italy was a major exporter and main supplier of wine to Rome, although this did not please everyone. Pliny the Elder disapproved of drinking to excess and said the wine of Pompeii would induce hangovers in those who imbibed it. Such was the importance of the wine industry that a wall painting has been found depicting Bacchus, god of agriculture and wine, surveying the fertile grapevines on Vesuvius. These grapevines would be blackened and lost along with Pompeii.

According to later accounts, volcanic ash reached as far as Egypt and Syria, while in Campania itself, the toxic air spread a “terrible pestilence” among those who returned. Yet despite the impact upon the region, the recovery began immediately. Titus, who had succeeded his father Vespasian as emperor only months before the disaster, hastened to the Bay of Naples.

The ruins of Herculaneum
The ruins of Herculaneum, in the town of Ercolano. (Photo by: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Inside Herculaneum

Pompeii may be better-known for being destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, but Herculaneum suffered the same fate. And, today, it is every bit as impressive to visit. Being much smaller – with an ancient population estimated at less than half of Pompeii’s, at 4,000-5,000 – Herculaneum.is, in fact, easier to take in.

The town was wealthier than Pompeii, and boasted even more luxurious villas. The so-called Villa of the Papyri was found to contain an unprecedented quantity of sculptures, as well as the only library from the ancient world to survive intact. The eruption served to carbonise the scrolls, nearly 1,800 of which were found in the 18th century. Scholars are still unravelling them and developing scanning methods to read the contents. Many have been revealed to feature works of Epicurean philosophy. Another Herculaneum villa became known as the House of the Wooden Partition after the miraculous survival of folding doors, used to separate the study from the atrium. Wooden roofs and furniture were also preserved under the ash.

Until the 1980s, few bodies had been unearthed at Herculaneum, leading archaeologists to believe that most of the residents escaped. But the excavation of the boat houses uncovered hundreds of skeletons – gathered together as attempts to flee the eruption failed. In Pompeii, the voids of decomposed bodies have also been found.

He put some senators in charge of the restoration of what was salvageable, and raised funds to aid the relief effort. A poet from Naples, Statius, even predicted that future generations would forget what had been buried “when the crops and these abandoned soils grow green again”.

Sure enough, greenery began to return to the region within decades of the eruption, and, astonishingly, by the time Pliny the Younger was in his mid- 30s, Campania had already regained its reputation as a place of immense fertility. His wife Calpurnia was one of many Romans who visited the area in the belief that it would benefit their health.

Today, we are not, perhaps, so very different in the way we view the areas surrounding Vesuvius. The beauty of the landscape and richness of its history attract millions of visitors every year. For the people who live in the shadow of Vesuvius, the risk of another eruption, while always present, pales in significance beside the benefits afforded by such fertile surroundings.

Fortunately for Pompeians today, there is technology to monitor the volcano’s activity, and evacuation plans in the event of a major eruption. It is chilling to think how many more people may have survived the disaster of AD 79 had they only known what lurked beneath those vibrant green slopes.

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Daisy Dunn is a historian, classicist and author

This article was taken from issue 73 of BBC History Revealed magazine