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The eruption story

In AD 79 Mount Vesuvius broke its centuries-long silence, with devastating results for the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and their inhabitants.

Map of Bay of Naples

From 09.00 BST on Monday 17 June, the British Museum will publish the story of the day Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, using an eyewitness account of the event alongside archaeological evidence to piece together the stages of the eruption and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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City size

Pompeii was over four times the size of Herculaneum.

Population

Pompeii was the larger of the two cities with approximately three times the number of residents than Herculaneum.

Based on a fragment of a citizen list found in Herculaneum, these are the most accurate figures we have about the wealth and status of those who lived there.

Morning

Pompeii and Herculaneum were ordinary cities. They were much like many of the other urban centres found throughout Italy and the wider Roman Empire.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were quite different from each other. Pompeii was much larger than Herculaneum. Estimating population numbers is very difficult but it is likely that Pompeii had around 12,000–15,000 people, while Herculaneum's inhabitants numbered around 4,000–5,000. The inhabitants of both enjoyed all the amenities of the cities, from baths and theatres to temples and markets, and lived in a wide variety of homes, from luxurious houses to tenement blocks, small flats above shops and live-in workshops.

Both cities offer a picture of a changing society – cities which had existed for centuries before the eruption of AD 79, with many of the private houses and public buildings being two or even three hundred years old.

Pompeii was the larger city and more of a commercial hub, with at least 150 bars and taverns, compared with just over a dozen in the smaller seaside city of Herculaneum.

Pompeii

The name ‘Pompeii’ probably originated from the Italic word pompe, meaning ‘five’. This probably means the city originated as an amalgamation of five towns or groups, which some scholars say can be traced in the archaeological record.

Herculaneum

The name Herculaneum is clearly based on the demi-god Hercules, who founded the city, according to legend.

Street fresco, fresco of food
Pompeii, Herculaneum

The streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum were filled with shops, bars and workshops, many built into the fronts of even the finest houses.

Shops and bars typically had marble counters fitted with terracotta jars for storing food and drink. Brightly painted signs of gods and lucky symbols advertised the businesses and protected their interiors. People could buy a variety of food: fresh, dried, preserved and bottled.

Bronze bust of a man
House of the Citharist, Pompeii

The Romans never realised they were in danger from Mount Vesuvius. For the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum the day of the eruption would have started as any other. The streets of the cities would have been bustling with ordinary people, just like this man.

We cannot be sure whether he was still alive when this portrait was displayed in an atrium in Pompeii, but we do know that it would have been important for it to have been lifelike. For Romans, portraits were made to be gazed upon, and they expected sculptors to capture a person’s character.

Mount Vesuvius

For Romans living around the bay of Naples in southern Italy, Vesuvius was considered as just a fertile mountain. Although it had been active in the 8th century BC it had been dormant ever since, leaving the people of the cities with a false sense of security.

Violent earthquakes in AD 62 or 63 were caused as the gases which had built up within the cone tried to force their way out.

In AD 79 the pressure had built up again, and the thick layer of lava, hardened to form a plug in the crater, was not enough to contain the gases. For several days there had been earth tremors affecting the surrounding area.

Pliny the Younger

The eruption of Vesuvius was documented by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (about AD 61–112) who watched from his mother’s house at the top of the Bay of Naples at Cape Misenum. He wrote two letters in which he narrated the events of the day and their effect. Extracts of these will appear in the timeline below as the eruption unfolds.

Check back at 11.30 to see the story unfold
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Vesuvius' plume

Vesuvius erupts, sending a tall mushroom cloud of superheated rock and gas over 20 kilometres into the sky.

Midday

After several small explosions Vesuvius erupts, sending a tall mushroom cloud of superheated rock and gas over 20km into the sky. The cloud blows southwards, plunging everything into total darkness.

About one in the afternoon… a cloud was ascending, the appearance which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.Pliny the Younger describes the Vesuvius eruption

The mountain emits noxious gases and unearthly noises. Violent tremors cause buildings to collapse. People flee to the beach, hoping for rescue from the sea but floating banks of pumice prevent ships from reaching or leaving the shore.

Lucky jewellery
Pompeii, outside Porta Nola

Some people wore jewellery featuring good luck symbols, perhaps to invoke the protection of the gods as the city around them was destroyed.

These items were all found with a young woman who died among tombs to the east of Pompeii. Nearly all the items she carried were linked to good luck including these rings with symbols such as the goddess Fortuna and snake heads. She clearly wanted the protection of the gods, but they proved to be of little help.

Charm bracelet
Herculaneum, ancient shoreline

Others took objects that held sentimental value. This bracelet was found alongside the skeleton of a child. It has over 40 charms made from lead, glass, bronze and carnelian, rock crystal from the Alps, amber from the Baltic and faience from Egypt. Perhaps the charms were collected over time and were held dear by the bracelet’s owner.

Fused mass of coins, once contained in a wicker basket
Herculaneum, ancient shoreline

As the eruption engulfed the cities, many of the people fleeing for their lives paused to grab objects of value such as jewellery and coins. Perhaps they hoped to provide a safeguard against difficult times ahead.

This wicker basket, full of bronze coins and a handful of silver denarii, might have been a morning’s takings from a shop or bar.

He ordered the galleys to be put to sea… Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene.

He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore.

Pliny the Younger describes how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, went to the aid of those at the foot of Mount Vesuvius

They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction.

In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them.

Pliny the Elder then disembarks and starts to assist on land
Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. Being at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots, which we had ordered to be drawn out, were so agitated backwards and forwards, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones.Pliny the Younger
The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain at least the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger.Pliny the Younger
Check back at 17.00 to see the story unfold
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Distance from Vesuvius

Pompeii, being downwind from the volcano, was showered with small volcanic stones. No such stones were found in Herculaneum, even though it was closer to Vesuvius.

Evening

Ash and pumice stones rain down on Pompeii. People are trapped by blocked doors while ceilings and roofs collapse under the weight of the debris.

Pompeii, being downwind from the volcano, was showered with small volcanic stones. No such stones were found in Herculaneum, even though it was closer to Vesuvius.

The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud… We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out.Pliny the Younger

The residents of the cities met death in different ways and at different times but many of them shared the basic instinct, as they fled, to take things with them that they believed were useful.

Bronze key
Herculaneum, ancient shoreline

The streets in which the Romans lived served as the essential setting for both businesses and fine homes. For many inhabitants business was a crucial element of the generation of wealth, which made ownership of such a beautiful home possible. This bronze key to a house, shop or apartment somewhere in Herculaneum may have been kept close in the hope that its owner might return home – an event that was never to be.

Bronze lantern
Oplontis, a Roman town on the Bay of Naples that due to its proximity suffered a similar fate to Pompeii

Practical objects included lamps and lanterns – essential during any evening but also, in these exceptional circumstances, during the day. The darkness in Herculaneum, and particularly Pompeii, overshadowed by the volcanic cloud, must have been near total. The lanterns they carried were fuelled by olive oil stored in the cylindrical reservoir at the base, and originally had shades made of thin sheets of animal horn.

Medical instruments
Herculaneum, ancient shoreline

These medical instruments were found in the remains of their original carrying case. They included six bronze scalpels, two hooks, a pair of forceps, a probe and a needle. With them was a small slate tablet, used, perhaps, to sharpen instruments or mix ointments. We can never know whether this case was carried by its owner in order to safeguard the tools of his trade, or in a valiant attempt to help any wounded.

The eruption reaches its peak and unleashes a hurricane of heavier, denser pumice. This causes the widespread collapse of buildings and destabilises the volcanic cloud, triggering the first deadly pyroclastic surge.

You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.Pliny the Younger
Check back at 23.30 to see the story unfold
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Vesuvius' plume

By midnight the plume had reached its maximum height of 30 kilometres.

Pyroclastic surge speed

A pyroclastic flow is a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock (collectively known as tephra), which reaches speeds moving away from a volcano of up to 700 km/h (450 mph). Pyroclastic flows are caused when the eruption column collapses.

Pyroclastic surge temperature

The massive pyroclastic surge headed towards Herculaneum with temperatures of up to 400°C, instantly killing everyone it touched.

Midnight

The cloud reaches its maximum height of over 30km then collapses spectacularly. A massive pyroclastic surge cascades down Vesuvius’s north-west slopes. It heads for Herculaneum, instantly killing everyone it touches.

It now grew rather lighter, which we imagined to be rather the forerunner of an approaching burst of flames (as in truth it was) than the return of day: however, the fire fell at a distance from us: then again we were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to stand up to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap.

I might boast that, during all this scene of horror, not a sigh, or expression of fear, escaped me, had not my support been grounded in that miserable, though mighty, consolation, that all mankind were involved in the same calamity and that I was perishing with the world itself.

Pliny the Younger

Skeleton of a ‘soldier’ with iron sword, belt, leather and bronze ‘sporran’, and iron dagger
Herculaneum, ancient shoreline

The same heat that carbonised objects reduced people to skeletons. This man, found on the ancient shore of Herculaneum, was wearing a belt of silver and bronze plaques and carrying a long sword and stabbing dagger. He is thought to be a soldier. The volcanic surge hurled him down with huge force, breaking his bones.

His blackened skeleton shows death was instantaneous. Exposed to the full force and high temperature of the surge, his body was burnt to the bone in seconds.

The bodies found so far in the cities account for only 10% of their estimated populations. One third of Pompeii and two thirds of Herculaneum are still unexcavated and it is possible that many bodies have yet to be uncovered in and around the cities.

Check back at 08.00 to see the story unfold
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Depth of burial

By the time the eruption had ended, Herculaneum was buried by up to 20 metres of volcanic material. This had come from the pyroclastic surge and would harden into rock over time. Pompeii was buried by five metres of volcanic material. Most of the buildings in Pompeii collapsed due to the fall of pumice stone and other materials, which didn't happen in Herculaneum.

Early morning

As dawn breaks, the cloud collapses for the last time. Between 06.00 and 08.00 huge pyroclastic surges pour onto Pompeii killing everyone still there and smashing remaining buildings. The cloud collapses for the last time and darkness spreads across the Bay of Naples.

At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud or smoke; the real day returned, and even the sun shone out, though with a lurid light, like when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes (which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered deep with ashes as if with snow.

Pliny the Younger

Wooden table and wooden linen chest
Herculaneum

When the volcano destroyed Herculaneum, many of the domestic objects used by its inhabitants were carbonised (blackened and turned into charcoal) by the extreme heat of the first pyroclastic surge. This process took all the moisture from the objects, which stopped them from decaying.

Doors, staircases and other wooden features were also preserved in Herculaneum but rarely in Pompeii – the volcano destroyed the cities in different ways. This maple wood linen chest is one such item that survived from Herculaneum. When the chest was accidentally broken open during excavation, it was revealed to still contain carbonised clothing.

Poets like Statius lamented the loss of the cities: ‘…in a future generation, when crops spring up again, when this wasteland regains its green, will men believe that cities and peoples lie beneath? That in days of old their lands lay closer to the sea? Nor has that fatal summit ceased to threaten’ Statius, Silvae, AD 90s

To explore all the objects from the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, download the British Museum’s accompanying app or buy the catalogue.


Exhibition

Pompeii exhibition

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

28 March – 29 September 2013

From the bustling street to the intimate spaces of a Roman home, this major exhibition will take you to the heart of people’s lives in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Find out more 

Events

Pompeii events

Bringing the Romans to life in the heart of London

Come to the British Museum for a range of lectures, workshops, films and craft activities exploring life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

See all events 

Catalogue

Catalogue

By exhibition curator
Paul Roberts

This captivating book explores the lives of the ordinary people of Pompeii and Herculaneum buried by the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Includes new photography and over 200 objects.

App

App

Download the official exhibition app

Immerse yourself in the life of the two Roman cities through exclusive video footage and curator interviews. Explore the story of Vesuvius's eruption in the interactive timeline to see the differing fates of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Find out more