7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It

Patrick Lynch - August 7, 2017

Mount Vesuvius is hundreds of thousands of years old and is the only volcano on mainland Europe that has erupted within the last 100 years; the last time was in March 1944. There are approximately 3 million people living in the vicinity of Vesuvius, and it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.

There have been over 50 eruptions but the one that destroyed the town of Pompeii on August 24/25, 79 AD is the most famous. Over the course of two days, it also devastated the settlements of Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis. The tragedy still fascinates history lovers everywhere, and in this article, I look at 7 things you may not know about the eruption and the town of Pompeii.

1 – It Wasn’t a Total Surprise

According to the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, the eruption of the volcano caught everyone by surprise. He saw it from Misenum which was 21 kilometers away, and his account is our main source for the fateful event. However, it is a myth that everyone in the town was caught unaware. There were a number of minor tremors in the region during the years building up to the eruption.

There had been a powerful earthquake in the area in 62 AD and on August 20, 79 AD, 4-5 days before Mount Vesuvius erupted, small earthquakes started to take place. The number of tremors increased in the following days and even in Ancient Rome, people knew that earthquakes and tremors near the site of a volcano were something to worry about. Alas, thousands of people living in Campania were so used to the activity that they didn’t feel any fear.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Overview of Pompeii. Inexhibit

Of course, this was not true for everyone. Wealthy Romans had used Pompeii as a vacation spot and purchased second homes as getaways. After the earthquake of 62 AD, many of them did not return. By the time of the eruption, there were a substantial number of abandoned vacation homes. The number of warning signs increased as the day drew near and reports from eyewitnesses suggest that the volcano began erupting a day before the deadly hot gas blast killed so many people.

These early portents of doom were enough to scare away thousands of residents. The remains of around 1,400 people were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the death toll is unknown. However, since the total population of the four affected towns is believed to have been up to 20,000, it is fair to say that a reasonable proportion of people left before the eruption. Most of the people doomed to die were too poor to leave the city or else they had no place to go. It is likely that a large percentage of the dead were slaves or servants. Several local politicians also remained including the mayor of Pompeii.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Casts of Bodies in Pompeii. New Historian

2 – The Heat Was the Killer

It was previously believed that the citizens of the doomed towns died due to suffocation. Studies published in 2010 suggest it was the heat of the volcano that got to the residents first. According to Italian scientists, the unfortunate victims were exposed to temperatures of over 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit which would have killed them in less than 10 seconds. It was originally said that the Pompeii and Herculaneum victims suffered a lengthy and agonizing death from suffocation. In reality, they died almost immediately due to exposure to incredibly high temperatures.

The eruption caused pyroclastic density currents (hot clouds of gas and act) to speed down the slopes of the volcano. The currents engulfed Pompeii and killed everyone that remained in the town. The scientists concluded that exposure to hot surges of around 482 degrees Fahrenheit up to 10 kilometers from the vent was enough to kill the victims; even those who took shelter within buildings.

Pliny the Younger witnessed the devastation from a safe distance and left a grim account of what happened. He said that the eruption “rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches” Pliny was describing the phreatomagmatic phase which lasted hours. It is, however, untrue to say that everyone died from the heat. The volcano hurled giant blocks of lava and limestone at Pompeii and hit some unfortunate residents; fracturing their skulls.

There was a Roman fleet at nearby Misenum, and it helped evacuate a large number of people from the towns. Pliny the Elder (the Younger’s uncle) commanded the fleet but died during the rescue attempt; sources suggest he succumbed to a heart attack. Ultimately, people and animals were coated in hot ash which molded itself to their bodies. These bodies deteriorated and left a cavity inside the ash.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Pompeii Ruins. Get Your Guide

3 – Vesuvius in 79 AD Ranks Way Down the List of History’s Deadliest Eruptions

Although it might be the most famous, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was far from being the most deadly. The estimated death toll varies from 1,500 – 3,500 according to some historians though others believe up to 16,000 people died in 79 AD. Even if we take the highest possible figure, however, the legendary eruption only ranks #5 on the all-time list of deadly volcanic eruptions ahead of Mount Uzen.

The 1792 eruption of Mount Uzen in Japan is the deadliest in the nation’s history. If the initial eruption wasn’t bad enough, it was compounded by a landslide and tsunami. Up to 15,000 people died, most of them because of the landslide and tsunami. You can still see evidence of the landslide in the area today. The eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985 is the most recent event in the top 5. It was only considered a medium-sized eruption yet it resulted in the deaths of 23,000 people. It happened at night and covered the town of Armero.

The eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883 possibly rivals that of Vesuvius regarding fame. The volcano, located on the island of Krakatoa in Indonesia, caused two-thirds of the island to collapse and it resulted in a death toll of 36,000. The explosion was so loud that it was heard in Australia and there were incredible sunsets around the planet for several months afterward.

The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee in the West Indies caused the deaths of 40,000 people. A number of eruptions began taking place from April 25 which culminated in the huge one on May 8. The volcanic eruption destroyed the city of St. Pierre, and there were only two survivors. The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia remains the deadliest ever with 92,000 deaths. It happened over five days in April 1816 and was so severe that the volcano’s height was reduced from 13,000 feet to 9,000 feet. The effects were felt worldwide to the point where 1816 became known as the year with no summer because the ash reduced the global temperature. The eruption also led to crop failures which killed up to 100,000 people.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Pornographic Fresco in the Lupanar. Steve’s Genealogy Blog

4 – Pompeii Was Uncovered & Hidden Again

Those who have a cursory knowledge of the eruption and the town of Pompeii probably believe it lay undiscovered until the 18th century. In fact, it was discovered by Domenico Fontana in 1599. Before his accidental uncovering of Pompeii, the events of 79 AD stayed in the minds of Romans for a long time but were eventually forgotten. The destruction of Pompeii was soon perceived as a myth, and it became known as the lost city; it was also known as La Cavita.

That is until the end of the 16th century when Fontana and his workers found Pompeii when digging a new course for the River Sarno. They found a number of frescoes containing sexually explicit images by the standards of the era. As the frescoes were deemed too erotic, the workers buried them to censor the archaeology. According to the reports of later explorers, some of the sites had previously been worked on.

Because of this censorship, one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time remained buried for another 150 years. It was only after neighboring towns such as Herculaneum were excavated in the 18th century that Pompeii was rediscovered. In 1748, Charles Bourbon, the King of Naples, told a surveying engineer to find ancient statues and other treasures and bring them to the Spanish Court. The engineer found antiques at a place called La Cavita; started digging and was amazed to uncover a town.

There have been countless excavations at Pompeii ever since and they showed an enormous number of intact buildings and wall paintings. Since the middle of the 18th century, it has been possible to visit Pompeii and get a glimpse into what life was like for Romans in the first century AD.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
The Lupanar. Wikimedia

5 – Pompeii Was a Hub of Prostitution

The number of erotic frescoes found in Pompeii shows that the people of the era were certainly not prudes. It was suggested that the town was the capital of prostitution in Ancient Rome and excavations of the site seem to lend credence to this notion. The Lupanar was the most famous brothel in the town. It is without question the best ‘organized’ location for prostitution within Pompeii and also happens to be among the most popular tourist sites.

The Lupanar did a roaring trade because Pompeii was a trading town. As a result, it was visited by a large number of people each day; especially merchants from other towns who were happy to unwind in the brothel after a hard day’s work. Incidentally, the Lupanar is located at the intersection of two roads near the town center and is close to Pompeii’s Forum and Stabian Baths.

The notion that the Lupanar was the only brothel in Pompeii is incorrect. It was, however, one of the few which offered an explicit reference to the services it provided. The Lupanar had ten stone beds with mattresses; customers had privacy because each bed was enclosed within its own small room. The brothel had two floors with five beds on each although the upper floor had larger rooms. For extra discretion, customers using the upper rooms could enter the Lupanar via a special entrance.

There is also evidence that Lupanar encouraged customer reviews. Customers would scratch their opinions of the brothel and the performance of the prostitutes on the walls. Archaeologists found up to 120 pieces of ‘review’ graffiti. The person in charge of the brothel was called the ‘leno’ and he purchased the girls as slaves. Most of the prostitutes came from the East, and the leno apparently paid an average of 600 sesterces per girl.

There is even evidence to show how much a customer paid at the Lupanar. The cost ranged from 2 – 16 asses; 2 asses were roughly equal to one sesterces. If you needed directions to the brothel, there were signs in the form of phalluses engraved on the road surface to tell you how to get there. Archaeologists estimate that there were up to 25 brothels in Pompeii although most of them were not as open about their services as the Lupanar.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
The amphitheater in Pompeii. City Wonders

6 – Mount Vesuvius is Mainland Europe’s Only ‘Active’ Volcano

As I mentioned in the introduction, Mount Vesuvius is Mainland Europe’s only active volcano as its last eruption was in March 1944. It is located just 9 kilometers from the city of Naples and with over 3 million people living in the danger zone; Vesuvius’ next eruption could be the most deadly of all time. Of course, advances in technology mean that scientists are likely to know about any eruption in enough time to safely evacuate the region.

Mount Vesuvius’ first known eruption was a little over 20,000 years ago. Scientists have also found evidence of a mass evacuation in the region in the wake of the Avellino eruption which took place sometime between 1,800 and 1,500 BC. Unlike the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum, residents of the affected settlement had abandoned their village which was ultimately buried beneath pumice and ash.

After the Avellino eruption, Vesuvius entered into a stage of frequent but less violent eruptions; a notable one occurred in around 217 BC. Then came the fateful events of 79 AD when the volcano ejected stones, gas and ash up to 33 kilometers high. As I mentioned earlier, the exact number of deaths is open to speculation, but archaeologists have created 1,044 casts made from impressions of bodies found in ash deposits in and around the town of Pompeii. The remains of 332 bodies were found in Herculaneum.

Vesuvius has erupted at least 36 times since 79 AD. The next major event occurred in 203 and in 472; the eruption was so violent that ashfalls were recorded as far away as Constantinople. 40 years later, another major eruption occurred and was so severe that the King of Italy, Theodoric the Great, granted residents of the volcano’s slopes exemption from taxes. There was another eruption in the late 8th century and five more in a 68-year spell from 968 to 1036 which included its first recorded lava flows.

It became relatively quiet until December 1631 when a sudden eruption killed 3,000 people. Mount Vesuvius has erupted almost continuously ever since; the longest gap from 1680 to 1944 was a 34 year period of calm between 1872 and 1906. In fact, the 73-year gap at the time of writing is the longest since the 17th century. The 1906 eruption killed over 100 people and the 1944 event destroyed several villages. According to scientists, it could erupt at any time, and there are emergency procedures in place in case the worst happens. Incidentally, the Campi Flegrei volcano beneath Naples is also in danger of an imminent eruption according to experts.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Pliny the Younger. The Famous People

7 – There is Only One Eyewitness Account

From a purely historical perspective, we are fortunate that Pliny the Younger was in the region at the time of the eruption because he is the only firsthand account available. Pliny was in Misenum which is across the Bay of Naples at the time. He wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus where he describes the nature of the eruption along with the final days of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

The Elder was with his nephew and decided to launch a personal fleet to help rescue people, in particular, a close personal friend. Pliny the Younger decided not to join the expedition. One of the letters to Tacitus includes details Pliny gleaned from those who witnessed his uncle’s actions. The second letter relates to Pliny’s own experiences after his uncle left Misenum.

When both Pliny’s were still on Misenum, they saw a dense cloud rising quickly above the volcano’s peak. After seeing this cloud and receiving a message requesting participation in a rescue mission, Pliny the Elder organized ships and joined the effort. Pliny the Younger tried to get back to everyday life, but the tremors caused him to leave the house in favor of the courtyard. Additional tremors caused panic on Misenum, and the inhabitants abandoned the town.

Pliny the Younger wrote about a black cloud that obscured the light, but he also witnessed flashes similar to sheet lightning. While in the water, the inhabitants of Misenum panicked again when the cloud obscured the island of Capri which was just across the bay. Pliny recalls being showered with hot ash and writes that he had to remove it quickly or else he would have suffered burns. When the pumice and ashfall stopped, Pliny and his mother returned home and awaited news of his uncle.

Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder encountered hot cinders and pumice, but instead of turning back, he reportedly said: “fortune favors the brave” and ordered his helmsman to continue towards Stabiae which was approximately 4.5 kilometers from Pompeii. The party was in grave danger the following day and as they tried to flee, Pliny the Elder sat down and could not rise, even with the assistance of his friends. He possibly died from a heart attack. His friends managed to escape by land.

Pliny the Younger suggests that his uncle died because his lungs were fatally weakened by exposure to a poisonous sulfurous gas that wafted above him and his friends. This seems unlikely because Stabiae was 16 kilometers from the vent and his friends were unaffected by the volcanic gases.


Sources For Further Reading:

New York Times – Brains Turned to Glass? Suffocated in Boathouses? Vesuvius Victims Get New Look

World Atlas – Pompeii Archeological Site: 10 Interesting Facts

Daily Art Magazine – Erotic Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum

History Collection – 10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived

The Independent – Prostitution In Pompeii: 2,000 Years After Explosion, Sex-For-Cash Is Still Rife

The Collector – Prostitution In Ancient Greece And Rome

Medium – How Prostitution Drove the Economy of Ancient Rome

Red Orbit – Ancient Romans Drew Penises On Everything, And Here’s Why

Oxford Open Learning – The Burial of Pompeii and Herculaneum