Of the many natural disasters that ravaged the ancient world—from famines and plagues to floods and earthquakes—the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is one of the only ones we know about in any great detail. One of the main reasons for this is that we have the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger, preserved in a couple of letters he wrote to his close friend: the historian Tacitus. Pliny watched the disaster unfold from his luxury villa across the bay in Misenum, and witnessed his uncle (the encyclopedist, scientist and naval captain Pliny the Elder), sail across the bay to get closer—and ultimately fatal—look.
But while Pliny might have left us an overview of the disaster, the individual stories of the 1150 victims so far discovered in Pompeii have only been pieced together slowly and painstakingly since the middle of the 18th century. And it’s not just from the perfectly preserved town itself that we can reconstruct what happened. If we know how to listen, even the macabre, silent bodies of those who made the town both their home and their final resting place have something to tell us.
They were only preserved thanks to an innovative stroke of genius
The history of Pompeii’s excavation goes all the way back to 1748 (or 1599 if you count the brief but abandoned fieldwork of Domenico Fontana, who found the sexual explicitness of his discoveries too much to stomach and hastily reburied them). For the first hundred or so years, excavations were carried out on an ad hoc basis. The bourbon dynast Charles VII first ordered and patronized them for his own gain, either in the form of personal prestige or the magnificent discoveries themselves which he would have hauled off to his palace in Portici. But over time, as more of the town (and its treasures) was uncovered, the process became more systematic.
In 1860, excavations fell under the direction of Giuseppe Fiorelli. The Neapolitan archaeologist was something of a maverick: politically, he had spent some time in prison for his radical beliefs; professionally, he was recognized (and respected) for embracing more radical approaches to the field of archaeology. These approaches would prove vital during his tenure in Pompeii. For without them, it’s unlikely we would still have any of the remains of the town’s victims—at least in the form we know them.
Upon discovering a collection of human bones in the morbidly named “Alley of the Skeletons“, he noticed that hollow cavities, where the flesh had decomposed, had formed around them. Realizing the potential for preserving more than just the skeletons, he came up with a masterful idea, known henceforth as the Fiorelli Method. Fiorelli ordered his excavators to pour Plaster of Paris into the hollow cavities and wait for it to set. Only after it had hardened would they be able to carefully chip away at the ashen layers around the cavity, ultimately leaving an intricately detailed cast complete with facial expressions and details of the clothes the victim was wearing.
By pouring Plaster of Paris into the cavities formed by Pompeii’s victims, Fiorelli did an incredible service to archaeologists and academics past and present, as well as everyday tourists wanting to visit the ancient site. What he couldn’t have known, however, was that in making these casts he would hamper later scientific efforts to examine the bones and teeth of the deceased. But because of recent rapid developments in the fields of computer science and radiology, we’re now in a position to return to his casts, and re-examine them in considerable detail using CT scanners.
Work started in 2005, and immediately one of the most surprising discoveries was that Pompeii’s inhabitants were remarkably healthy (or at least those who hadn’t succumbed to one brutal ancient disease of another). Scientists have explained this in terms of their healthy diets. We know these were rich in fruit and vegetables not from the contents of their long-since decomposed stomachs, but from traces of eggs, chicken, figs, olives, beans and nuts found—of all places—in the cesspit of the nearby town of Herculaneum. Pompeii’s inhabitants also had near perfect teeth; something scientists have attributed to the high amounts of fluorine found in the water and air around Vesuvius.
These scans continue to bring about new information that challenges many of our preconceptions about Roman life and culture. In April 2017, it came to light that two figures found locked in a romantic embrace were not, as previously thought, both women. On the contrary “The Two Maidens”, as they were originally dubbed, were both men, one of about 18 years and the other about 20.
DNA tests have confirmed that they weren’t related, and the intimacy of the position—one resting his head on the other’s chest in search of comfort or protection (or both?)—has led people to speculate that they were lovers.
They can help us establish a date for the eruption
The traditional date for the eruption is August 24 79 AD. We get this from Pliny the Younger who—being the good, proper Pliny that he was—dated his letters “nonum kal. septembres” (“nine days before the first day of September). However other manuscripts, based on an original that’s now lost, date it to November. This inconsistency could be down to mistranscriptions (the everyday bane of a medieval scribe’s life). But, problematically, the later historian Cassius Dio also hints at a November date, writing that the event happened at the end of autumn.
Unfortunately, we’re 2,000 years too late to ask Pliny for clarification (that, and we don’t speak Latin). But what we can do is turn to Pompeii’s silent witnesses to shed light on the issue. Curiously, the plaster casts of the victims show that, at the time of the eruption, Pompeii’s population was layered up in warm clothing. And anyone who’s spent summertime in Central-Southern Italy will tell you that, during the month of August, this would have been completely and utterly insane. Of course, it’s possible that August 79 AD was unseasonably cool, and the fact that archaeologists found numerous used braziers in the House of Menander does seem to suggest this. But there’s more.
In the House of the Golden Bracelet, archaeologists found a coin among a fleeing group of Pompeiians that’s at odds with the chronological context of August 79. The coin was minted in honor of the incumbent emperor Titus and—in typical Roman style—consists of a long and rather tedious list of his acclamations and time in office. The golden giveaway is the inscription IMP XV: the emperor’s 15th imperial acclamation. This is significant because we know from the emperor’s own hand that, even during September 79, he was signing letters still gloating about his 14th imperial acclamation.
Some still cling to an earlier date. Anna Maria Ciarallo, for example, has used the large amounts of garum (a fish sauce used extensively in Roman cooking) found in Pompeii to push for an August date: arguing that there would have been more of it on the market then. On the strength of the evidence, it’s likely that the eruption happened later in the year. What’s certain is that, if this debate is ever settled, the conclusive evidence won’t come from garum or manuscript editions, but from Pompeii’s bodies.
What draws 2.5 million tourists to Pompeii each year is the promise of a snapshot of real Roman life. With its immaculately preserved streets and villas; its brothel and its amphitheater, navigating the site—so we’re told—is the closest thing we have to step into a time machine. In reality, the fact that so many make the journey to the ancient site is credit to the deceptive abilities of those who manage it. And the best way to describe Pompeii, in truth, is as one elaborate illusion.
One of the earliest tricks played on tourists in the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t involve the town but the townsfolk. As luck would have it, royals, aristocrats and dignitaries who had come to gawp at the marvels of Pompeii would be blessed with the fortune of “discovering” Pompeii’s skeletons for themselves. More often than not, the shock of their discovery would give them the ideal springboard to launch into philosophical musings about the fragility of human existence or some other such subject. The English author Hester Lynch Piozzi parodied this perfectly after her visit to Pompeii in 1786 when she wrote:
“How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests! How horrible the certainty that such a scene might be all acted over again tomorrow; and that, who today are spectators, may become spectators to travellers of a succeeding century, who mistaking our bones for those of the Neapolitans, may carry them to their native country back again perhaps.”
The illusion didn’t stop with the Grand Tours, however. While almost everyone knows about the eruption that destroyed the town few people know about the devastation wreaked upon the site by Allied bombers during the Second World War. The truth is that, when US and British pilots bombed the area around Pompeii in 1943 in an attempt to dislodge German forces as part of Operation Avalanche, they destroyed vast swathes of the site, including the Large Forum and Amphitheater, which had to be entirely rebuilt.
So when you walk around Pompeii today, be aware that the roads below you, the walls around you and—in some buildings—the roofs above you are not from 2,000 years ago but from as little as 20. Such is the strength of the illusion that you can only admire how well they blend in.
Not all the remains come from those killed in the eruption
When we visit Pompeii, we like to imagine that the bodies we’re looking at that are those of Vesuvius’s victims; victims of the scorching pyroclastic flow, the deadly toxic gases or the lethal pumice stones raining from the volcano. Part of the reason for this is that it fits within the narrative of what we already know. And, let’s face it, there’s comfort in remembering and revising what we already know. Another reason for this is that we’re all guilty of time-capsule history; of assigning a particular moment to a place and forgetting what came before and, just as importantly, what came afterward.
Few people know that the volcanic eruption wasn’t the only natural disaster that befell that particular generation of Pompeians. The historian Tacitus (the pen pal Pliny later wrote to describing Vesuvius’s eruption) recorded a serious earthquake 17 years earlier in 62 AD, which reduced sections of the town to rubble. But though life in Pompeii may have changed dramatically in the wake of the earthquake, it didn’t stop. The same is to be said for after the eruption in 79.
And, while it’s unlikely any bodies from the earthquake were left lying around in situ in the 17 years before Vesuvius erupted, there’s little doubt that some of the humans remain recovered from the site date from the months, years and centuries after the eruption.
One such example comes from the House of Menander (named after the painting of the Greek dramatist of the same name found there). Three bodies were discovered—two adults and one child—armed with pickaxes in a room off the courtyard of this luxurious house. Archaeologists initially thought that they were trying to break their way out of the room when it collapsed around them. Flip this on its head though, and what’s to say they weren’t a band of looters who irreversibly weakened the already damaged structure as they broke their way in, making their looting ground their final resting place?
One modestly dressed woman was found in a location now identified as a slave prison. Her cast is simple. But its only distinguishing feature—her manacles—raises a horrendous truth: she was a slave who had been shackled there, and was unable to escape. She would have been one of many thousands of Pompeii’s slaves (considering a typical Roman household might have anywhere between five to seven). But, unlike the millions of invisible, forgotten slaves of the Roman Empire, her figure has managed to weather the ages, still visible for all to see.
Another of Pompeii’s victims can be identified as a doctor, owing to the fact that his skeleton, found splayed out across the open-air exercise space of the palaestra, is still clutching onto his box of instruments. In another large house the remains of 12 people were found, including those of a heavily pregnant teenage girl (the fact that she was pregnant established by the bones of the fetus found in her abdomen). And it has led archaeologists to believe that the majority of these people were either slaves or relations, and that (unfortunately for them) they decided to stay at home and wait out the disaster rather than risk the girl’s health outside.
In Pompeii’s temporary gladiatorial barracks (the main ones were temporarily out of action), the remains of an ornately jeweled noblewoman were found in the company of several strapping men. This gave birth to the cliché rumor she was caught off guard by the eruption during an illicit visit to her gladiator lover. But as fanciful as this is, it doesn’t explain the fact that she was also found surrounded by at least 18 others, including a number of children who had taken shelter from the debris raining down from the skies.
One of Pompeii’s most famous and poignant casts is that of a man sitting down, his knees up to his chest and his hands raised to cover his face. It’s also one of the most misplaced: currently on display behind the bars of Pompeii’s site storeroom, his situation makes him more closely resemble a perpetual prisoner, lamenting his own confinement, rather than a dying man in his final moments.
One image that has recently gone viral is that of a male Pompeii victim seemingly spending his last few moments on earth doing what—to put it delicately—he may have loved doing best. Simultaneously holding onto both himself and his loved one, his plaster cast reveals a facial expression of either immense pleasure or intense pain (considering the circumstances of his death, the latter was unfortunately, a given). But what can a closer look at this somewhat manual Pompeian man tell us about how he died?
Of the 1,150 bodies recovered, it’s believed that 394 were killed by falling pumice, described vividly in the contemporary account of Pliny the Younger: “They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell around them.” This man, however, doesn’t fall into this category. For a start, there’s no sign of cranial trauma; the only trauma instead coming from people unwittingly exposed to the image today in public or while at work.
Instead, we can confidently count him among the victims of the pyroclastic flow: a lightening fast current of boiling-hot gas and assorted volcanic matter which exploded from the volcano after a long, intense build-up of pressure (innuendo thoroughly intended). The sheer heat of this, estimated to have been at least 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, would have made those unfortunate enough to be in its path enter cadaveric shock. And a part of this involves what’s called cadaveric spasm, which involves the involuntary stiffening of one’s muscles.
So, as much as we may like to imagine that this man became frozen in time mid-way through a one-man Roman orgy; fiddling while Rome burned; determinedly finishing what he’d started as day turned to night and the apocalypse seemed to descend around him, in reality, it seems his death was to do with something completely different: an enormous eruption followed by involuntary muscle spasms.
At the time of the eruption, Pompeii was home to anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 people. So far we’ve uncovered around 1,500 bodies of the 2,000 estimated to have died in the disaster. But we are still continuing to find them: just a few months back in June 2017, French and Italian archaeologists uncovered the bones of four people, including a teenage girl, in a workshop on the Porto Ercolano. But it’s not just the bodies from within the town itself that can tell us about ancient life. A group of at least 54 fugitives found in a cellar in the nearby town Oplontis also help paint a vivid picture.
What’s fascinating is that their remains were divided into two groups. On one side of the room sat the rich. One man, with teeth as good as anyone’s today and muscles far in excess, has been identified as one of the wealthy on the basis that his bones were stained green. This didn’t come from any thermo-chemical reaction from the volcano; instead, it came from the sheer amount of precious metal he was wearing, which came into contact with the bone once the flesh had decomposed.
In fact, the wealth around them was quite extraordinary: lots of jewelry, gold bangles, worn gold and silver coins and unworn gold coins (indicating they were being used as savings rather than currency in circulation).
Then there are the two twins found in the basement of Oplontis, whose teeth and bones—quite remarkably—show signs of congenital syphilis. If this is the case, as scientists are beginning to think, this completely overturns what has been the consensus for centuries: that it was Columbus’s men returning from the Americas in the 1400s who first brought syphilis to Europe.
One of the unique things about Pompeii (at least as far as its inhabitants go) is that it shows off a true cross-section of Roman society. There are bodies of infants just as there are bodies of the elderly; there are the remains of the stinking rich, surrounded by jewelry and coins, just as there are those of the poor, who fled Vesuvius without a single possession to whatever their name was.
There are slaves, gladiators and aristocrats. And, as you’d expect from a fully functioning town in the middle of the countryside, there are the remains of animals: specifically a small boar and a dog.
The dog is particularly disturbing. The cast captures it writhing in its last moments of agony as the pyroclastic flow thundered down the volcano, incinerating everything in its path. Strangely, CT scans have revealed it to be a dog without a bone—without any bones in fact. In their attempt to explain this, archaeologists have (rather obviously) suggested that the bones were removed from the cavity prior to the plaster being poured in. Why, however, remains a mystery.
Pompeii’s canine legacy doesn’t end here. One of the main attractions when you visit the site is the cave canem mosaic; a sign at the entrance of the House of the Tragic Poet that, when translated, gives us our first ever example of “Beware of the Dog”. And that’s not all. Visit Pompeii today, and you’ll find packs of strays mulling around the city, lured here by the promise of scraps donated by generous tourists. Unlike the tourists, these are the only living creatures in the vicinity blissfully unaware of the tragic fate of their ancestors.