Did anyone survive in Pompeii?

Ejecting molten rock and gases at 1.5 million tons per second, it’s to imagine how anyone could escape the clutches of Mount Vesuvius. Was it possible that people managed to survive the infamous 79 AD eruption? 

Back in 79 A.D., the citizens of Pompeii were met with a loud burst of smoke on top of the nearby mountaintop. Little did they know that this mountain top was in fact a volcano which was set to erupt and destroy the entire city. The eruption was fast and sudden raining down on the city with volcanic debris, toxic smoke and metres of ash. Like a thick blanket, the ash hid the ruins for thousands of years. Hidden and soon forgotten, the city was rediscovered in the 18th century much to the surprise of budding archaeologists. Today Pompeii remains one of the most popular archaeological sites of an ancient area in the modern world. The buildings and homes of the city remain preserved, with the final moments of Pompeii’s citizens etched into the remains.

The Eruption

The 79 A.D. eruption had devasting effects on the volcano’s nearby neighbours, with around 2,000 citizens killed in 24 hours. Before the eruption even started, there were numerous tremors in the days prior, warning the area of the destruction to come. But due to the city already enduring numerous earthquakes throughout its time, most of the citizens merely brushed it off. Mount Vesuvius then blasted a large cloud of smoke which rained down ash that covered the city in a thick layer as deep as 25km. This smoke and ash created a suffocating and muggy atmosphere, with the Pompeii people wrapping tunics around their mouths as make-shift masks. The world was shaking, with numerous buildings crumbling down and hitting escaping townsfolk. But the main cause of death in the city was due to the pyroclastic gas, a hurtling hot wave of ash, toxic gas, and debris that sped down and burnt the people alive on impact, burying the city and its citizens.

Who would have survived?

Archaeologists have determined from past documents and artefacts that there were around 20,000 people living within the city at the time of the eruption. From studying the skeleton remains, they estimated that around 2,000 people died in the eruption. With those who survived either not in the city at the time of the eruption or carried to safety in Misenum by the Roman navy. Those who did not leave early or chose to stay in the city certainly died from the pyroclastic flows, suffocation, or being crushed by falling debris. Scholars have also studied events following the eruption that seem to confirm people’s survival. For example, if your home was just destroyed where would you go? Scholars concluded, that even in the patchy state of historical records, there would be some evidence to support the existence of survivors and where they might have gone following their escape of the eruption. Given that this was the ancient world, the newly refugees didn’t travel far, with most staying along the southern Italian coast and resettling in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli. To identify which of these resettlers were originally from Pompeii scholars took to carefully combing through records looking for any signs of unique Pompeiien culture, such as their religious worship of Vulcanus, god of fire, and family names distinct to Pompeii. One survivor who we have a record of was Cornelius Fuscus, who later died in a military campaign. In an inscription following his name, it states that he was from the colony of Pompeii, then he lived in Naples and then he joined the army. Such a move is supported by the public infrastructures that sprung up around the time following the eruption in nearby towns close to Pompeii, probably to accommodate for the sudden influx of refugees.

Where do the stories come from?

How do we know about the eruption that happened thousands of years ago? How can we know? Well, being one of the biggest eruptions, it was bound to be seen and felt by others close to Pompeii. Fortunately for us, the events of Pompeii’s devastating end comes from the letters of the seventeen-year-old Pliny the Younger. Discovered in the 16th century, Pliny’s letters reveal that he was staying with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was an official member of the Royal Court and in charge of the fleet within the Bay of Naples. Sadly, Pliny the Elder died during the eruption, with Pliny the Younger recounting his death in his letter. His two letters to Cornelius Tacitus recounted the events of the eruption first hand and are the only primary source found for this particular event. He famously compares the cloud of smoke seen from his uncle’s house as an umbrella pine, split off to branches by the upwards thrust of the blast. His letters recount a personal and emotional account of the eruption, as in another letter he relates hearing the cries of men, women and children looking for one another amongst the chaos and the dark smoke. How accurate Pliny’s account is, we can’t be sure, but, till this day, it’s all we’ve got.

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