Pompeii, a flourishing resort city south of ancient Rome, was nestled along the coast of Italy in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano. Its most famous eruption took place in the year 79 A.D., when it buried the city of Pompeii under a thick carpet of volcanic ash. The dust “poured across the land” like a flood, one witness wrote, and shrouded the city in “a darkness…like the black of closed and unlighted rooms.” Two thousand people died, and the city was abandoned for almost as many years. When a group of explorers rediscovered the site in 1748, they were surprised to find that beneath a thick layer of dust and debris, Pompeii was mostly intact. The buildings, artifacts and skeletons left behind in the entombed city have taught us a great deal about everyday life in the ancient world.
Where Is Pompeii?
Located on the west coast of Italy along the shores of the Bay of Naples—south of the modern-day city of Naples—ancient Greek settlers made Pompeii part of the Hellenistic sphere in the 8th century B.C. An independent-minded town, Pompeii fell under the influence of Rome in the 2nd century B.C., and eventually the Bay of Naples became an attraction for wealthy vacationers from Rome who relished the Campania coastline.
By the turn of the first century A.D., the town of Pompeii, located about five miles from Mount Vesuvius, was a flourishing resort for the most distinguished citizens of the Roman Empire. Elegant houses and elaborate villas—many filled with exquisite artworks and sparkling fountains—lined the paved streets.
Much of the city’s wealth derived from its rich volcanic soil—the region was a center for olives, grapes and other crops, and wine from Pompeii was enjoyed in some of Rome’s most fashionable houses.
Tourists, townspeople and enslaved people bustled in and out of small factories and artisans’ shops, taverns, cafes, brothels and bathhouses. People gathered in the 20,000-seat arena and lounged in the open-air squares and marketplaces.
On the eve of the fateful eruption in 79 A.D., scholars estimate that there were about 12,000 people living in Pompeii and almost as many in the surrounding region.
Mount Vesuvius did not form overnight, of course. Vesuvius is part of the Campanian volcanic arc that stretches along the convergence of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates on the Italian peninsula—it been erupting for thousands of years.
Sometime around 1995 B.C., for example, an unusually violent eruption (known today as the “Avellino eruption”) shot millions of tons of superheated lava, ash and rocks about 22 miles into the sky. That Bronze Age catastrophe destroyed almost every village, house and farm within 15 miles of the mountain.
Villagers around the volcano had long learned to live with their volatile neighbor. Even after a massive earthquake struck the Campania region in 63 A.D.—a quake that, scientists now understand, offered a warning rumble of the disaster to come—people still flocked to the shores of the Bay of Naples, and Pompeii grew more crowded every year.
Sixteen years after that telltale earthquake, in either August or October of 79 A.D., a number of small earthquakes rocked the Pompeii region. The people there shrugged off the temblors since they “were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania,” according to the writer and eyewitness Pliny the Younger.
Then, shortly after noon on that fateful day, Mount Vesuvius erupted again. The blast sent a plume of ash, rock and scorching-hot volcanic gases so high into the sky that people could see it for hundreds of miles around.
Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from across the Bay of Naples, compared this “cloud of unusual size and appearance” to a pine tree that “rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.” (Today, geologists refer to this type of volcanic blast as a “Plinean eruption.”)
As it cooled, this tower of debris drifted to earth: first the fine-grained ash, then the lightweight chunks of pumice and other rocks. It was terrifying—“I believed I was perishing with the world,” Pliny wrote, “and the world with me”—but it was not yet lethal: Most Pompeiians had plenty of time to flee, and many did.
Herculaneum and Pompeii
For those who stayed behind in Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns, conditions soon grew much worse. As more and more ash fell, it clogged the air, making it difficult to breathe. Buildings collapsed under overloaded roofs, but still some people remained in the city, now covered under several feet of ash.
Then, on the morning of the following day, a “pyroclastic flow”—a 100-miles-per-hour blast of superheated gas and pulverized rock—poured down the side of the mountain and vaporized everything and everyone in its path.
By the time the Vesuvius eruption sputtered to an end on the second day of the eruption, Pompeii was buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash.
Some people drifted back to town in search of lost relatives or belongings, but there was virtually nothing left to find. Pompeii, along with the neighboring town of Herculaneum and a number of villas in the area, was abandoned for centuries.
About 2,000 Pompeiians died in the city, but the eruption in total killed up to 16,000 people in Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns and villages in the region.
Bodies of men, women, children and animals were frozen right where they’d fallen—many of the bodies uncovered later were still clutching valuable household objects they’d hoped to carry safely out of the city. Some bodies were found with their arms poignantly wrapped around children or other loved ones.
Later archaeologists even uncovered jars of preserved fruit and loaves of bread. Most of the city’s buildings were intact, and everyday objects and household goods still littered the streets. The powdery volcanic ash that buried Pompeii had proved to be an excellent preservative.
Pompeii remained mostly untouched until 1748, when a group of explorers looking for ancient artifacts arrived in Campania and began to dig. They found that the ashes had acted as a marvelous preservative: Underneath all that dust, Pompeii was almost exactly as it had been almost 2,000 years before.
Many scholars cite the excavation of Pompeii as an influence in the neo-Classical revival of the 18th century. Europe’s wealthiest and most fashionable families displayed art and reproductions of objects from the ruins, and drawings of Pompeii’s buildings helped shape the architectural trends of the era.
For example, wealthy British families often built “Etruscan rooms” that mimicked those in Pompeiian villas. Today, many of the preserved artworks, frescoes and other artifacts are on exhibit at the Pompeii Antiquarium, located among the city’s ruins.
The excavation of Pompeii that has been going on for almost three centuries continues today, and the entire site has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scholars and tourists remain just as fascinated by the city’s eerie ruins—and the artifacts and bodies buried on that fateful day over 2,000 years ago—as they were in the 18th century.
“Many disasters have befallen the world,” wrote the German philosopher-poet Goethe, after touring Pompeii’s ruins in the 1780s, “but few have brought posterity so much joy.”
History of Pompeii. Pompeii Online.
Resurrecting Pompeii. Smithsonian Magazine.
Archaeological Areas of Pompei, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata. UNESCO World Heritage Convention.