Cities of Vesuvius



- Syllabus Content -


The Eruption
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Temple of Jupiter with Mt Vesuvius in the background


“…the nature of the eruption governed what was left behind for archaeologists to dig up” (A.E. Cooley, Pompeii)

See Chapter 5 of your text book: "Eruption and the last agonies of Pompeii and Herculaneum".

For each topic in this section, you need to use your own knowledge and sources to respond to short-answer questions and multiple choice questions.

See the Melbourne Museum's "A Day in Pompeii" eruption video.



Focus Questions:
  • What evidence is there for the date of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius?
  • What evidence is there for warning signs of the eruption?
  • What do modern and ancient sources show us about the stages of the eruption?
  • How did the eruption have a different impact on Pompeii and Herculaneum?
  • How many people escaped the eruption? Why did some people not escape?



The date of the eruption

See Fig 5.1 p.68
The eruption began on 24 August AD 79 – or was it 23 November AD 79?
  • List the arguments for each date?
  • Which date is the accepted date for the eruption?

Warning signs
  • What warnings signs are shown in works by Seneca, Tacitus and Suetonius?

Seneca described the earthquake in AD 62 (Naturales Questiones VI 1 1-2):

WE have just had news, my esteemed Lucilius, that Pompeii, the celebrated city in Campania, has been overwhelmed in an earthquake, which shook all the surrounding districts as well. The city, you know, lies on a beautiful bay, running far back from the open sea, and is surrounded by two converging shores, on the one side that of Surrentum and Stabiae, on the other that of Herculaneum. The disaster happened in winter, a period for which our forefathers used to claim immunity from such dangers. On the 5th of February, in the consulship of Regulus and Virginius, this shock occurred, involving widespread destruction over the whole province of Campania; the district had never been without risk of such a calamity, but had been hitherto exempt from it, having escaped time after time from groundless alarm.
The extent of the disaster may be gathered from a few details. Part of the town of Herculaneum fell; the buildings left standing are very insecure.
Seneca Naturales Questiones VI 1 1-2


There is no record of another quake though some buildings in Pompeii that had been repaired after 62 seem to have suffered further damage.

Tacitus and Suetonius mention a quake in 64 which damaged the theatre in Naples:

There an incident occurred, which many thought unlucky, though to the emperor it seemed due to the providence of auspicious deities. The people who had been present, had quitted the theatre, and the empty building then fell in without harm to anyone.
Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome 15:34


And he made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock.
Suetonius, Life of Nero 20.2


The eruption

Pliny the Younger’s letters (6.16 and 6.20) to Tacitus provide the only eye-witness account of the event. He also relied on accounts of others and the letters were written long after the event. However, they are a very accurate description of the first phase of a major eruption (now called the Plinian phase)
  • What do the letters of Pliny the Younger (6.16 and 6.20) to Tacitus tell us about the sequence of events during the eruption?
  • How has the work of vulcanologist, Haraldur Sigurdsson, helped us to understand the sequence of the eruption?
  • What is the difference between the Plinian phase and the Pyroclastic phase?
  • Which phases/s affected Pompeii and which affected Herculaneum? (see table p.69-70 and map p.71 for extent of Pyroclastic surges)



View footage of the 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius