History‎ > ‎


In the middle years of the first century AD, life in the towns and cities round the Bay of Naples seemed comfortable and peaceful. But a brooding presence had been looming over the inhabitants all along. Vesuvius had not erupted in over a thousand years; but all that was about to change.

In AD62 there had been a severe earthquake centred close to Pompeii. According to Seneca it occurred on the 5th of February of AD62 causing considerable damage to both public and private property and leaving
'parts of the town of Herculaneum in ruins, and even the structures left standing shaky'. The damage was so severe that even 17 years after the earthquake, repairs were still being made throughout the area.

Then in early August, AD79 the tremours returned. On the 20th of August a more severe tremour shook the area around Pompeii. On the 24th of August, in the early hours, ash began to issue from Vesuvius. At about 1pm that day, however, the lives of the inhabitants changed forever.

Time Contempory Account by Pliny the Younger
Reconstructed Account


'The ninth day before the calends of September (24th August), in the early afternoon, my mother drew to my uncle's attention a cloud of unusual size and appearance. Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, 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 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.'

The eruption begins. Molten rock shoots 27 kilometres into the stratosphere, turning into a flat cloud of dust and pumice. The volcanic cloud is driven south-eastwards in the direction of Pompeii and Stabiae. By 1.15pm volcanic ash and debris begins to rain down on Pompeii and the surrounding area.



'My uncle hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames. For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this, he refused, and they should make for the home of Pomponianus at Stabiae. The wind was in my uncle's favour, and he was able to bring his ship in.'

The cloud column now rises to 32 kilometres. Atmospheric conditions are now so charged that lightning pulses in the volcanic cloud. The depth of the ash and debris in Pompeii is now over a metre, causing structural damage to buildings. Some of the population decide to escape the fallout; others take shelter inside, trying to make safe their roofs by clearing some of the burden of pumice and ash.



'After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous. Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.'

The eruption continues unabated. Those who have elected to stay (in Pompeii perhaps as many as 2,000) scramble about on the rising drifts of pumice or shelter under surviving roofs. So far the area around Pompeii has borne the brunt of the onslaught from Vesuvius, but time is running out for Herculaneum.



'Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.'

The eruption continues. Lightning lights up the sky. At about 1 am, as pressure briefly abates, the volcanic column collapses producing the first pyroclastic surge. This torrent of hot volvcanic debris rushes down Vesuvius Herculaneum and sweeps through with deadly effect. In a matter of moments it reaches the waterfront, killing everything in its path. Herculaneum is utterly dead.



'By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed any longer he would never have got out.

My uncle was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household, who had stayed up all night.'

At about 2 am a second pyroclastic surge follows the course of the first surge and roars through Herculaneum  burying the town and reshaping the shoreline. Pompeii has so far escaped these damaging surges.



'They debated whether to remain indoors or take their chances in the open. After comparing the risks they chose the latter. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths. Elsewhere there was daylight, but they were still in darkness.

My uncle decided to go down to the shore. There, a sheet was spread on the ground for my uncle to lie down, and he repeatedly called for cold water which he drank.'

At about 6 am a third pyroclastic surge heads this time towards Pompeii. It almost breaches the city walls. In Pompeii volcanic debris has now reached a depth of well over two metres.

About an hour later there is a fourth surge. Again it is aimed at Pompeii. This time the dust and hot gases envelop the city killing every remaining soul, probably over 1,000. See Links and Video Clips for reference to a scientific paper on the subject.



'Then the flames and smell of sulphur which heralded the approaching fire drove the others to take flight. Aroused, my uncle struggled to his feet, leaning on two slaves, but he immediately collapsed. I assume that his breathing was impeded by the dense fumes which blocked his windpipe - for it was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.'

A fifth surge follows minutes later. Then, at about 8 am, a sixth and final surge, the most powerful of all, sweeps down over Herculaneum and Pompeii and across blackened countryside burying or asphyxiating all it touches. Several thousand people die. The surge almost reaches Misenum across the bay.



'And now came the ashes, but at first sparsely. Behind us (Pliny the Younger and his mother) an ominous thick smoke, spreading over the earth like a flood, followed us. We had scarcely agreed what to do when we were enveloped in night. To be heard were only the shrill cries of women, the wailing of children, the shouting of men. But the darkness lightened, and then like smoke the cloud dissolved away. Everything appeared changed - covered by a thick layer of ashes like an abundant snow fall.'

The eruption at last begins to weaken, although ash continues to fall for a day or so. Heavy rains brought on by the effects of the eruption bring mudslides to Herculaneum, completing its burial.


* Historic Note

Based on one version of Pliny's letter the eruption started on the 24th of August 79. However the excavations at Pompeii, together with a second version of his letter suggest a later date, probably nearer the end of October. The argument for this later date carries some weight, as the results of the excavations showed that the populace were dressed in warmer clothing than would have been expected in August and the fruit and vegetables on sale in the many shops were more autumnal in nature.  Similarly wine fermenting jars were sealed, which would generally not have happened until late October.

Home..........................<.Vesuvius.......................History.....................Counting the Dead.>...............Glossary