The city of Pompeii was one of the most famous cities of the Roman Empire until it was destroyed by the volcano Vesuvius on August 24th in the year 79 CE. The dramatic event has left a deep mark in history, wrecking this cheerful and prosperous city along with its numerous inhabitants. The question remains: what was the main cause of death in Pompeii?
Based on the information from the excavations and forensic studies, the main cause of death of the Pompeiians was asphyxiation by volcanic ash. After the eruption, the city of Pompeii was buried under a thick layer of ash and pyroclastic material reaching more than 5 meters in depth. The eruption was so powerful that the ash layer spread and reached the closest cities, Herculaneum and Stabiae, at a distance of less than 80 km from the volcano. In Pompeii itself, the ash reached up to the roofs, clogging gutters, drains, and other parts of the city’s infrastructure.
The remains of the individuals recovered from the ancient city of Pompeii were examined. Based on those examinations, it is believed that the first impact of the eruption would have been gray ash falling on the city and surrounding areas. At the same time, an enormous wave of hot air, known as a pyroclastic surge, would have struck the city and caused intense heat, at temperatures of up to 800 Celsius. Those who didn’t manage to flee would have been buried in the thick layer of ash.
To understand the effects of the ash, experts compared the findings with other volcanic eruptions in the area. They uncovered a particular sequence of events which began with the pumice and ash falling. This created a cloud of particles, asphyxiating the individuals. Those who were able to remain alive would have eventually stood up, gathering strength only to suffer the effects of the intense heat brought by the pyroclastic surge.
The studies of the victims indicate that the most common cause of death in Pompeii was in fact asphyxiation, due to the buildup of gas in their lungs. It is believed that this gas was a result of the sudden combustion caused by the hot ash that enclosed the city. Not much time could be given to the inhabitants to escape the disaster, so the majority of them perished in the city.
The asphyxiation was followed by the intense heat, which affected those who remained alive. Many people were found fused with the objects that surrounded them, either in the streets or inside their homes, indicating the extreme temperatures at which people were enclosed. Other victims sustained a combination of both asphyxiation and thermal shock.
The shock affected not only the people, but also the animals, as it was impossible to escape the city walls. Other reports indicated that some individuals died of trauma, as to survive such a cruel event must have been unbearable. But overall, the most prevalent cause of death in the city of Pompeii was asphyxiation induced by the ash and other materials generated by the eruption.
Vesuvius Eruptions in the Years Past
Volcanic eruptions of the Vesuvius are not a novelty in history. Several eruptions took place before the disaster in 79 CE, prompting ancient people to leave the city well in advance of the event. One of the eruptions which left evidence of the devastating effects of the volcano took place at the end of the fourth century BCE. The remains of the ancient city of Herculaneum were partially preserved due to the ash layer which kept it from being destroyed. It is thought that this eruption could also be responsible for the devastation of the city of Pompeii 18 centuries later.
In 79 CE, the city was already known to be in the vicinity of the mighty Vesuvius, and being aware of the danger of a possible eruption, the people of Pompeii weren’t completely taken by surprise. Various indications such as earthquakes and a thunder storm prior to the eruption showed signs of the phenomenon, allowing some to leave the city a few days before the onslaught.
However, many people ignored these signs and their warnings, some of them thinking that the citizens of Herculaneum had escaped the disaster. Little did they know that a few days later the same traumatizing event would befall them. Their arrogance and naivety prevented them from taking precautions and eventually led to the death of thousands of individuals.
The volcanic eruption of Vesuvius brought numerous lateral eruptions, associated with pyroclastic flows. This phenomenon is produced due to the accumulation of a wide variety of particles and gases ejected by the volcano. With temperatures reaching 800 degrees Celsius and speeds that can reach 190 kilometers per hour, these pyroclastic flows can quickly burn down everything in their paths. Therefore, they can be considered as the principal cause of destruction of the cities located in the vicinity of the Vesuvius.
The pyroclastic flows released by the volcano also created low clouds of hot, sharp particles which caused intense temperatures, that further led to intense heat and asphyxiation. This deadly combination is the most widely accepted explanation for the destruction of Pompeii and its inhabitants.
Experts have reconstructed the arc of the eruption from eyewitness accounts, noting huge ash deposits as far away as five kilometers from the crater. In addition, the presence of a massive cinder cone in the crater reveals the direction from which the eruption occurred, which can be linked with the ash deposits that extended around the entire edge of the volcano.
The survivors of the volcanic eruption reported several instances of intense heat, black rain and giant thunderbolts and peals of thunder. These indicators support the idea that the pyroclastic flows and their intensity were the major cause of destruction of Pompeii.
Ash and Pumice Ejected by Vesuvius
The debris and particles that were emitted by the volcano have also played an important role in the destruction of the city. This includes a wide variety of materials, such as pumice, lapilli, marble, and more. Most of these materials had a thickness of between 0.5 and 2 cm, and weighed between 15 and 20 kilograms per square meter.
The weight of these particles and the force of their fall were enough to cause considerable destruction to buildings and other infrastructure in the city and surroundings. Moreover, the accumulation of these materials caused blockages and choked the streets of the city, preventing many people from finding an escape route.
In light of the evidence, it is clear that the main cause of death in Pompeii was asphyxiation, followed by thermal shock and trauma. The ash and pumice particles, in conjunction with the pyroclastic flows, combined to make this extraordinary event one of the worst tragedies in human history.
Structural Collapse and Human Behaviour
The ancient city of Pompeii also suffered from a huge structural collapse as a result of the eruption. Numerous buildings and monuments were destroyed by the immense weight of the earth and ash that buried the city in the days following the then-unforeseen disaster.
Moreover, the human behavior of the Pompeiians also contributed to the number of deaths. Most of them had remained in the city as they didn’t believe that the event would be as bad as it was in the end. Their carelessness and blindness to the importance of the moment led to the death of thousands of individuals in Pompeii.
The social structure of the city also played an important role in the tragedy. People lived in separate houses divided by narrow alleys, in which it was next to impossible to flee. This made it even more difficult for individuals to get away from the danger, thus leading to the consequential high mortality rate.
Effects on Neighbouring Cities
The indirect effects of the eruption on the nearby cities have also been felt. Not only did the ash and pumice from Pompeii reach cities like Herculaneum and Stabiae, but the quake itself also caused repercussions in these locations. The tremors caused by the force of the eruption caused buildings to collapse and landslides to occur, further endangering the inhabitants of these cities.
The seismic waves produced by the eruption took several hours to cover the distance between Pompeii and the nearby cities, and its effects were felt even farther away. Shaking was reported in cities up to 200 km away which were located in the area of the Appenine mountain range, indicating an enormous magnitude of the eruption.
These events represent the immense power of nature and its unpredictability, and make us realize the fragility of human life in comparison to the might of the natural world.
Environmental Impact of the Volcanic Eruption
The consequences of the eruption were also felt on an environmental level. This event not only caused immense damage to the ecosystem, but also caused the extinction of several species of animals and plants.
The most significant environmental effects were the sufferings of the nearby towns, which lost a huge part of their vegetation. This caused the soil to become extremely fertile and prone to erosion, due to the almost total absence of trees in the area. This subsequently led to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and an increase in the earth’s temperature.
The material ejected and the temperature increase that followed the event also affected the sea near the city. Reports of fish deaths and changes in the sea currents, as well as an increase in acidity levels, indicate that the long-term effects of this natural disaster were far more devastating than the short-term ones.
Legacy of the Disaster
The disaster of Pompeii is also remembered through the stories and anecdotes that were left by the survivors and eyewitnesses. Accounts of the unfathomable tragedy have been passed down through history, helping to paint a complete picture of the event.
In addition, the city of Pompeii has been preserved, part of it still lying under the ash until this day. This legacy, coupled with the modern-day studies and reconstructions of this event, serves as a reminder of the immense power of nature and the unpredictability of its forces.
The disaster of Pompeii, which was thought to be caused by gods punishing the city, left an indelible mark on human history, becoming an example of the consequences of human arrogance and ignorance.