The power of Vesuvius in the ancient world

The eruption of Vesuvius has led to an interesting combination of destruction and preservation… Although the volcano buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, this means they are very well preserved. But recently they’ve come under threat from more destruction thanks to human activity. So what should we do next? Should we just preserve what’s already been discovered, or carry on digging to see what else lies beneath? 


There is little more destructive than a volcano. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples, bringing their busy lives instantly to an end. The volcano’s destruction of those towns, of course, led in the end to their preservation as archaeological sites: this paradoxical interrelationship raises some interesting questions.

Luckily for us, the eruption of Vesuvius was witnessed by a man called Pliny, a Roman author with a keen interest in natural phenomena; his nephew has left us a vivid description which combines detail with intelligent speculation about what was causing what he could see:

Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like a pine rather than any other tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it. My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection.

Pliny Ep. 6.16 (tr. Radice, Loeb edition).

Pliny followed his curiosity and headed towards the eruption as most other people were running away from it. Combining a rescue mission with a desire to observe and take notes on what he saw, he ended up trapped by the eruption and suffocated under the rain of ashes that also entombed Pompeii; the account we have above was written by his nephew, also a fine writer, who stayed at a safe distance. Volcanologists still call this distinctive kind of volcanic eruption, with an ejection of large amounts of debris into the stratosphere, ‘Plinian’.

Pliny’s death was of course a catastrophe for him and a tragedy for his family. But it resulted in this important, dramatic account (it’s worth reading all of it, in two letters which you can find here), and to a sort of immortality: as his nephew wrote, the manner of his uncle’s death was  ‘so memorable that it is likely to make his name live for ever’.

shutterstock_172273094.jpgThis paradoxical linked pair of effects – the volcano killed Pliny, but also helped make him famous, and left us a wonderfully vivid account – is also true for the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. No doubt their inhabitants would have been horrified to know that the volcano, a peaceful neighbour for centuries, would suddenly overwhelm their towns, destroy their homes, and kill them and their neighbours. But the fact remains that this destruction was also a preservation, turning Pompeii into a sort of time capsule of the ancient Roman world, fascinating to tourists and to scholars alike (these towns, because they are so well preserved, can actually tell us more than Rome itself about some aspects of ancient Roman life like housing, shopping, streetscapes, local small scale politics, diet, and more). Had Vesuvius not erupted, Pompeii would now be little more than a footnote in Roman history, one of scores of obscure small towns that were just names on the map. As it is, it is one of the most famous and important archaeological sites on the planet.

shutterstock_1066154702.jpgThis rather double-edged benefit that Vesuvius conferred on the towns beneath its summit raises some important questions, both practical and ethical. Should we be glad that Vesuvius erupted, creating such marvellous resources for modern scholars and tourists at the expense of the unfortunate ancient inhabitants? Well, we can’t undo what Vesuvius did, and we should at least try to make the best use of the destruction wrought by the volcano. But what about, for example, those famous plaster casts of bodies, trapped in the rising ashes in the moment of their deaths and revealed by archaeologists? They are one of the most popular attractions in the town; it is undeniably fascinating to look at a ‘face’ from 2000 years ago, and there is a certain ghoulish interest in seeing the last poses of the human (and animal) casualties of the volcano, in their attempts to flee, shelter, or struggle against their grim fate.

Just this year the discovery at Pompeii of a skeleton whose head was apparently crushed by a falling block made headlines round the world. The body revealed some interesting information: the man had a leg problem that might have slowed his escape and was carrying a bag with a fair amount of money and a key; careful excavation revealed that the block now sitting over his head probably hadn’t killed him after all, and that 18th century excavations might have disturbed his body – a series of little extra insights into the history of the site, and the decisions and challenges faced by the town’s last inhabitants.  But unsurprisingly, the striking image also became the basis of internet memes. Some were undeniably quite funny, but can humour be the right responses to a violent death in a natural disaster, even one so long ago? Does the passage of time make the suffering of Pompeii’s inhabitants fair game, or should we feel uncomfortable? Do you think these body casts should be on public display? And if so, what sort of response is appropriate?

The paradoxical connection between destruction and preservation raises other questions. Pompeii is so well preserved because it has been buried for nearly two millennia. Frescos discovered in new excavations this year, with astonishingly fresh and vivid colours, show how thoroughly the dense layers of volcanic ash have sealed them against damage: Vesuvius was in some ways a rather gentle destroyer. But the opposite is also true: excavators interested in restoring these artefacts to human sight, would-be rescuers of the lost world of Pompeii,  immediately expose them to destructive forcesatmospheric pollution, looters, casual damage from tourists, frost and sunlight and rainwater damage, even the acid droppings of generations of pigeons. The damage done to Pompeii and neighbouring sites over the last couple of centuries is sadly immense, raising from the deliberate organised looting of the early explorers to second world war bomb damage and recent collapses brought about by weathering and neglect.

Happily, there has been a strong response to this problem. The ‘Great Pompeii Project’ is funded by the EU and the Italian government, with a large and multi-disciplinary archaeological team. It has already begun to shore up and protect what has already been exposed, which will be an almost never-ending task given the scale of the ruins. But it has also begun to uncover new remains – the frescos and the unfortunate skeleton mentioned above, horses still in their harnesses, an impressive inscription detailing huge public games and entertainments, a graffito that might redate the eruption, and much else.

shutterstock_1181366563.jpgThese discoveries are undoubtedly fascinating. But should we keep exploring? About a third of Pompeii remains buried. Left underground it will not decay further, and can await the future’s as-yet-uninvented archaeological techniques. And excavating for new treasure can be a glamorous distraction from our duty to preserve what we have already uncovered. At Herculaneum, for example, the famous Villa of the Papyri has already revealed a treasure trove of carbonised ancient books, now painstakingly unrolled and read by scholars. Most of the literature they have proved to contain is in Greek: might there be a lost Latin library still in the villa, perhaps containing contemporary poetry by Virgil or the lost books of Livy? Should we go and look for it? Or should we spend precious and limited resources conserving the crumbling above-ground ruins of Herculaneum, exposed by earlier excavators? Is human intervention in the end a greater threat to the ancient towns that the volcano which unleashed such destructive, but also protective, forces?

Vesuvius might in the end resolve these dilemmas for us. For a volcano, two thousand years is not a particularly long time. Vesuvius has erupted regularly since AD 79, and last fell silent in 1944. Other parts of the volcanic system under the Bay of Naples are showing signs of activity. Sooner or later, Vesuvius will visit further destruction on the busy human habitations that crowd around its base.


Matthew NichollsDr Matthew Nicholls is Senior Tutor, at St John’s, looking after the provision of teaching in College, from the strategic level to working with individual students. Matthew was himself a student in the College for eight years, as an undergraduate and graduate, before a career as a Classicist at the University of Reading.

His academic work is in the field of Roman history. He is enthusiastic about bringing ancient history to new audiences, and does a great deal of public facing work in schools talks, broadcast, and popular publications. In particular, his 3D digital reconstruction of ancient Roman buildings, including the entire city of Rome, has helped bring the ancient city to life for thousands of people around the world in a popular free online course, or MOOC.