Why Is the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius so (In)famous?

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, earning it an infamous reputation that would last centuries.

Mar 6, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History


On 24th August 79 CE, after centuries of dormancy, Mount Vesuvius erupted, shaking southern Italy and the whole of the Roman Empire. The eruption was so catastrophic that it destroyed the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands. The cities, buried under a thick layer of ash, pumice and mud, were never rebuilt and gradually disappeared from history. Then, in the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, sparking an interest in ancient Roman history and archaeology. More importantly, the cities, buried for centuries, provide us with an unprecedented archaeological record of everyday life of ancient Rome, frozen in time. As well as valuable scientific data that can help to mitigate the further catastrophe. 


The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius Was an Unprecedented Catastrophe

ruins of pompeii mount vesuvius
Destruction by Titus of the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem by Johann Georg Platzer, in a Private Collection, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


For centuries, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum thrived near the base of Mount Vesuvius at the Bay of Naples. In the early years of the Roman Empire, around 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, a vibrant trade hub in southern Italy. The area was known for its rich soil, ideal for numerous vineyards and orchards. Herculaneum was a resort town of 5,000, a favorite summer destination for wealthy senators and Roman emperors. However, at noon, on the 24th of August, 79 CE, this prosperity and pleasure came to an end when the peak of nearby Mount Vesuvius exploded.


For the next 12 hours, volcanic ash and pumice showered Pompeii and Herculaneum, forcing the people to flee in terror. Those who remained met their tragic and sudden end when a lethal cloud of hot ash and gas engulfed the area, burning or asphyxiating the unfortunate people. Then, a flood of volcanic mud and rock buried Pompeii and Herculaneum.


However, It Also Preserved Pompeii and Herculaneum

plaster casts victims pompeii
Plaster casts of some of the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, via Antiquarium Museum of Pompeii


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Although the eruption killed thousands and erased Pompeii and Herculaneum from the map of the Roman Empire, it had an unexpected side effect. Namely, the layers of ash and pumice formed a natural “time capsule” that preserved the buildings, frescoes, sculptures, and even human remains until their rediscovery almost 1700 years later. As a result, the preserved ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum offer us a unique and valuable glimpse into ancient Roman society.


The buildings, artwork and everyday objects found in the two cities reveal the culture, customs and beliefs of the former citizens. In addition, the preserved human remains give us information on the physical characteristics, food, and health of the people and the circumstances of their tragic death. Thus, Pompeii and Herculaneum are probably the most important places to study Roman history.


Vesuvius’ Eruption Was Recorded by an Eyewitness

kauffman pliny the younger and his mother at misenum painting
Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum AD 79, by Angelica Kauffmann, 1785, via Princeton University Art Museum


Mount Vesuvius erupted in the “golden era” of Roman history. At the moment of the disaster, the Roman Empire was at its apex, enjoying a long and unprecedented period of peace and prosperity – the Pax Romana. Thus, the eruption’s impact was not so damaging to the Empire. Yet, it would be wrong to think that the Romans were not affected by the disaster. In fact, we have a rare and incredibly detailed report of the disaster, written by one of the eyewitnesses – Pliny the Younger.


Thanks to Pliny’s letters, we know of the events that occurred in the first hours of the eruption. Also, we know that his uncle, celebrated naturalist Pliny the Elder, the commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum at the time of the Vesuvius’ eruption, organized a doomed rescue expedition. Unfortunately, soon after reaching the port of Stabiae, on the other side of the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Elder succumbed to toxic gas and died. This seems to be the only attempted rescue of the unfortunate people. Emperor Titus was later criticized for his inadequate response.


The Scientific Importance of Mount Vesuvius’ Eruption

plinian mount st helens pliny the elder
A photograph of a Plinian eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980, via United States National Park Service


The eruption of Mount Vesuvius was a major disaster for the ancient Romans. However, the ancient catastrophe transcends the place and time. The detailed eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger allowed historians and scientists to reconstruct the timeline of the eruption. More importantly, the account of the eruption left a significant contribution to the field of volcanology. The particular type of volcanic eruption that doomed Pompeii and Herculaneum is nowadays recognized as “Plinian.” Together with other well-recorded Plinian eruptions, such as that of Krakatoa in 1883 or Mount St. Helens in 1980, the Vesuvius eruption provided scientists and researchers, providing us with a better understanding of the Earth’s natural processes and how humans can prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.


Impact of the Mount Vesuvius Eruption on Culture and Art

turner vesuvius in eruption painting
Vesuvius in Eruption, by J. M. W. Turner, circa 1817-1820, via Yale Center for British Art


The eruption of Mount Vesuvius had a profound impact on art and culture, both in ancient times and the following centuries. From their rediscovery in 1784, the preserved ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum provided a treasure trove of inspiration. Artists and writers were drawn to the ancient ruins, seen as a symbol of the grandeur and sophistication of the ancient world. The greatest painters of the era, such as J. M. W. Turner or Pierre-Jacques Volaire, vividly depicted the apocalyptic moment. The bards of literature, too, immortalized the ancient disaster. Lord Byron, Henry James, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe drew on the imagery and themes of the ancient cities, and the eruption of Vesuvius became a powerful symbol of the impermanence and fragility of human life.


In addition, the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum renewed interest in classical architecture, and many buildings in Europe and America were constructed in the neoclassical style. It also inspired the design of public parks and gardens, with many features, such as fountains and sculptures modelled on ancient Roman examples.


villa san marco pliny the elder
The excavated villa of San Marco at Stabiae, via Antiquarium Museum of Pompeii


Lastly, the disaster significantly impacted the field of archaeology, as the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum led to a renewed interest in the study of the ancient world, and the excavation of the cities became a major focus of archaeological research. The discoveries made at Pompeii and Herculaneum provided essential insight into the daily lives, customs, and beliefs of ancient Romans and helped to shape our understanding of their world.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.