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Counting the Dead

Of the towns and villages that were overrun, Pompeii provides us with the most comprehensive picture of the effects of the eruption on the populace and the sequence of events that accompanied it. While Herculaneum was equally devastated, the effects on the population were different. As the town didn't suffer from the initial fallout of volcanic debris, more of the population had time to escape before the pyroclastic surges overwhelmed the town.

The number of inhabitants of Pompeii at the time of the eruption is still open to debate, ranging from around 6,000 to over 20,000. The number of victims recovered, however, is more certain, totalling 1150 identifiable bodies so far. Of these, 394 were found in the lower pumice deposits while 650 were found in the upper pyroclastic deposits. If we assume that there is a similar distribution of victims in the unexcavated areas of the city, the total number of dead in the city due to the eruption must be in the order of 1600.

During the first phase of the eruption a hugh quantity of pumice fell on Pompeii, burying the city to a depth of 2-3m. During this phase, most of the inhabitants managed to leave the city. However, 38% of the known victims were killed during this phase, mainly as a consequence of roofs and walls collapsing under the increasing weight of the pumice deposit.

During the second phase of the eruption, 51% of the casualties were inside buildings, while 49% were outdoors. All of the inhabitants in this phase however, regardless of their location, were killed by the pyroclastic surges that overran the city. Some of the inhabitants must have survived the first pyroclastic surge, as their bodies were found above the lower pyroclastic deposits.

Plan of Pompeii

The following tables show the distribution of bodies found in Pompeii in each phase of the eruption. Reference is made to the location of the victims within the city - Regio I, Regio II, etc. These divisions are marked on the accompanying plan above. For a fuller description of the labelling of areas within the city refer to the Map of Pompeii.

Table 1:

Location Indoors Outdoors Total
Regio I 66 9 75
Regio II 12 7 19
Regio III 9 0 9
Regio IV 1 1 2
Regio V 40 0 40
Regio VI 41 2 43
Regio VII 59 5 64
Regio VIII 21 5 26
Regio IX 69 1 70
Unknown location 10 2 12
Outside the walls 17 17 34
Total 345 49 394
Table 1: Bodies found in the pumice fall deposits

Table 2:

Location Indoors Outdoors Total
Regio I 86 41 127
Regio II 26 73 99
Regio III 0 4 4
Regio IV 0 0 0
Regio V 40 0 40
Regio VI 11 16 27
Regio VII 33 14 47
Regio VIII 43 51 94
Regio IX 43 7 50
Unknown location 4 5 9
Outside the walls 49 70 119
Total 234 316 650
Table 2: Bodies found in the pyroclastic deposit

From the tables it can be seen that during the first phase of the eruption most of the deaths occurred within buildings, killed by the collapse of roofs and walls under the weight of volcanic debris. During the second phase, when people had elected to either stay inside to wait out the eruption, or to leave the city when they could, the ensuing pyroclastic surges killed those that they engulfed, regardless of their location.

Note: The above tables are based on the scientific paper on the causes of death of the inhabitants by Giuseppe Luongo. The paper is included as Appendix A of the Bibliography.