When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the ancient Roman city of Pompeii was wiped off the map. But did anyone survive the eruption? Scholars have long debated the fate of Pompeii’s inhabitants. Some have posited that many citizens managed to flee in time, while others have argued that few survived the catastrophe.
Studies of the structures and remains at the site of Pompeii have yielded some clues as to what happened to the citizens. Historians agree that a dense, superheated cloud of gas, rocks, and ash engulfed the city and its immediate surrounding area. This pyroclastic flow would have acted as an unbreathable, asphyxiating wall of death and destruction.
But, several doorways were discovered to have been blocked with large stones, meaning that some residents had likely taken refuge inside their homes. Archaeologists also found the remains of over 50 people crouching in small spaces. Some of these were children, or elderly, suggesting that those at the site were attempting to escape the heat and flames.
The trade port at Herculaneum, located further away from Mt. Vesuvius, is thought to have been abandoned days prior to the eruption, suggesting that some citizens may have foreseen the eruption and left the city before they could become trapped. This supports the notion that people who had the opportunity to escape Pompeii did so.
Despite this, the vast majority of Pompeii’s inhabitants left behind evidence that they perished in the eruption. Skeletal remains, casts of corpse outlines, and pieces of carbonized wood have been discovered at the site. All of this evidence attests to the power and strength of the pyroclastic flow.
Modern scholars are beginning to produce new theories about the cataclysm at Pompeii. It is becoming accepted that the majority of people at the site could not have possibly escaped the tragedy. Indeed, recent excavations reveal that the number of people who survived the eruption were likely few and far between.
In addition to examining skeletal remains and other archaeological artifacts, scientists are now turning to ancient writings in order to gain further insight into the fate of the citizens of Pompeii. It is hoped that by analyzing these texts, a clearer picture can be painted of the tragedy that befell the city.
Volcanic Hazards at Pompeii
The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius obliterated Pompeii and its surrounding area with overwhelming speed and force. Thick volcanic ash and acidic rain constituted what is now known as a pyroclastic flow – an extremely dense and heated cloud of rock, ash, and gas. Such flows have been observed throughout history, and it is thought the people of Pompeii faced a similar phenomenon.
Given the unique geography of the region, the pyroclastic flow must have been a startling and alarming occurrence. With no way to predict the cataclysmic event, the sudden force and danger of a pyroclastic flow would have been impossible to escape from. As the collapsed and burning structures indicate, the citizens of Pompeii faced such incredible heat and pressure that many were killed instantly.
Additionally, volcanic hazards would have been present in the atmosphere long before the eruption. Sulfur dioxide and dust particles would have moderately disrupted visibility for those in and around the city. Some of the victims, it is thought, may have suffered from respiratory illnesses or other ailments resulting from prolonged exposure to volcanic gas.
The evidence examined from the site of Pompeii also points towards an instance of extreme weather. Historians have documented extreme winds and hailstorms in the moments leading up to the eruption, as well as seismic activity and subsequent flooding, all of which could have affected the speed and magnitude of the event.
Epicenter of the Disaster
In terms of the actual location of the eruption, it is widely agreed upon that the event originated from the very top of Mount Vesuvius. Reports from the time describe ash and pumice cascading from the summit “like the pouring of a liquid” – some remnants of which have still been seen today. Archaeologists have, in fact, located the vent of the volcano, now thought to be located at the peak of the mountain.
As the eruption continued, the flow of hot material and ash descended down the mountain towards the city of Pompeii, gathering speed and momentum and completely engulfing the city in a matter of hours. As such, it is generally accepted that the eruption was so concentrated, so intense, and so sudden that there was no hope of outrunning the disaster – to the people at the time, this was a phenomenon of incomprehensible size and power.
Indeed, Pompeii is not the only example of a city devastated by the force of a pyroclastic flow. In 79 A.D., there were several other settlements in the region – such as Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Boscoreale – that were consumed by the eruption. All of which display the same characteristics of ash and pumice, as well as the remains of those who were unable to escape in time.
So, although some people may have escaped the eruption, the most prominent evidence consistently points to many more casualties than survivors. This tragedy of Pompeii has been adeptly documented and studied, providing stark reminders of the power of nature and the fragility of life.
In the centuries that have passed since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, countless studies have been done in order to understand the phenomenon more thoroughly. As a result, scientists have formulated theories and conducted experiments in order to replicate the destructive power of a pyroclastic flow. Such studies have helped produce evidence of the people’s attempts at escape and the effects of the eruption.
For example, studies of the site suggest that the citizens of Pompeii attempted to block the entrances of buildings with large stones. They may have thought that by doing so, they may have been able to slow down the release of toxic gases and shield themselves from the heat and force of the flow. Unfortunately, however, the effect was not as strong as they may have hoped.
Through geological research, it has been discovered that the intensity of the eruption was high enough to overwhelm any form of shelter or solid object. When examined more closely, evidence indicates that the heat and pressure of the flow would have prevented anyone from fleeing the premises.
Furthermore, in various laboratory experiments, scientists have been able to replicate the unfolding of events that occurred during the eruption. When combined with the archaeological evidence, these experiments lead to the conclusion that the vast majority of people at the site perished in the initial explosion.
Distribution of Remains
When archaeologists excavate a site as historically significant as Pompeii, an array of evidence must be accounted for in order to produce accurate reconstructions and interpretations of the tragedy. For example, archaeologists have studied the patterns and distribution of skeletal remains in order to gain a better understanding of how the volcano consumed the city.
From the debris and products of the explosion, it has been found that the bodies were found in multiple sections around the city. This suggests that the pyroclastic flow would have thrust some of the people out of their homes, indicating that the citizens were likely subject to a violent gust of wind and then overwhelmed by the torrent of toxic gases.
In addition, forensic experts have been able to determine the cause of death of some of the victims. This includes examining the way in which bones were fractured, as well as examining the arrangement of the remains which provides further clues as to how the people died. This evidence further suggests that the majority of victims perished in overwhelming heat and pressure.
Excavation and Rescue
Especially due to the advancement of modern technology, the telling of the 8,000-year-old story of the destruction has become a much more expansive and detailed endeavour. As a result, archaeologists have been able to uncover some of the most extraordinary and poignant artifacts from the site and surrounding areas, including human remains, jewelry, and artwork. The preservation of such items has enabled an even more insightful account of the tragedy.
In the centuries since the eruption, archaeologists have worked tirelessly to successfully excavate and restore the ruins of Pompeii. In the very first excavation of the ruins, a rescue effort was made to try and recover any of the cities lost inhabitants. Unfortunately, however, the majority of victims would have been impossible to recover once they had been swallowed by the pyroclastic flow.
Nevertheless, Pompeii has now become an iconic image to remind us of the strength of nature and the fragility of life. It serves as a reminder that although some people may have survived the horrors of such a catastrophic event, there are many more who did not.