Ancient History & Civilisation



The remains of Pompeii are often described as re flection of a frozen moment in time. This is the basis of the so-called ‘Pompeii premise’, which argues that Pompeii is the ideal archaeological site, providing a standard against which all other sites can be measured. The premise is underpinned by the notion that Pompeii was a thriving town that was destroyed quickly and without warning. This concept undoubtedly owes its origins to popular perceptions of the site rather than academic research.1

The idea of Pompeii as a frozen moment can probably be traced back to the early excavations, when, for example, the first skeleton was found with a small collection of coins that appeared to have just been dropped.2 It was reinforced by subsequent discoveries, including those of 1765, when the Temple of Isis was uncovered. On the altar were the remains of the last animal sacrifice and in a room to the rear of the sanctuary, a skeleton was found next to a plate full of fish bones, assumed to be this person’s last meal.3 Such images provided the inspiration for the Romantic movement, as can be seen in Madame de Staël’s early nineteenth-century novel Corinne, ou lItalie.4 With Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, the perception of Pompeii as a time capsule became enshrined in popular consciousness.

While most scholars who work in Pompeii would acknowledge that the concept of Pompeii as a static moment in time is far too simplistic,5 a number of academic works on Pompeii nonetheless treat the site as such.6 It is notable that Pompeian scholars who demonstrate awareness of the complexities of the site persist in invoking the imagery of a frozen moment in their works for a more general audience as exemplified by the following description:

In no other ancient site is the past as intensely present as in Pompeii where the clock of history stopped so abruptly. Gazing at the breakfast which is still on the table, at the paint and brushes just prepared by the painter about to start his work, or at the slogans in the streets for the forthcoming municipal elections the visitor feels like the prince entering Sleeping Beauty’s castle.7
Pompeii is far from the perfect site. The ‘Pompeii premise’ is a romantic ideal that neither Pompeii nor any other site could fulfil. The complexity of the site and its interpretation can be observed on a number of levels. These include the possible impact of the major earthquake experienced by Pompeii in AD 62 and the impact that subsequent seismic activity may have had on the population and the size of the population in AD 79. In addition, it is necessary to consider the form and time span of the AD 79 eruption and how it would have influenced survival prospects of individuals, as well as post-eruption and post-excavation alterations to the site. Examination of these issues enables the parameters of knowledge about the site at the time of its destruction to be established. Since the nature of the sample has been determined by these factors, this information is necessary for the interpretation of the skeletal material.

Impact of the AD 62 earthquake

Pompeii was not an important town in antiquity and only really achieved immortality as a result of the disasters it suffered. The first of these was an earthquake, which was recorded by two ancient writers, Seneca8 and Tacitus.9 Tacitus’ account is very brief and notes extensive damage to Pompeii. Seneca described the event in more detail, stating that Pompeii in particular was devastated, though the whole Campanian region was affected. He noted that many of the country villas were so badly damaged that they could no longer be occupied. Though there is some disagreement about the date, most scholars now accept that this event occurred on 5 February, AD 62.10

While there is no doubt that this earthquake had a major impact on Pompeii and other Campanian sites, there is no consensus as to the exact nature and degree of change brought about by the catastrophe. All signs of damage, partial or completed repairs and rebuilding in Pompeii were traditionally attributed to theAD 62 earthquake. These include: damage and interruption to the water supply, villas and houses which had been damaged so badly that they were virtually uninhabitable, partial or complete destruction of public buildings, like the Capitolium and the Temple of Venus in the region of the Forum and reconstruction of the temples of Vespasian and Isis. Many of the larger houses were roughly repaired and subsequently subdivided into what appear to have been separate apartments. Some were also converted for commercial or industrial uses, such as the modification of a house into a fuller’s shop, the Fullonica Stephani (I, vi, 7). Houses that were restored were supposedly recognizable by a new system of wall decoration, the so-called Fourth Style. Some houses were totally rebuilt, such as the Casa dei Vettii (VI, xv, 1–2).11

Much of this evidence cannot be unequivocally associated with the AD 62 earthquake. For example, an inscription commemorating the rebuilding of the Temple of Isis after it was damaged by seismic activity is generally assumed to refer to theAD 62 event despite the fact that the inscription doesn’t refer to a specific earthquake.12 Similarly, the relief panels from the House of Caecilius Jucundus (V, i., 6)13 are generally interpreted as depictions of scenes during the AD 62 earthquake but as they are undated, this assumption cannot be verified.

Some scholars have variously interpreted evidence of damage and subsequent repairs to structures in the Pompeian archaeological record as either areflection of the AD 62 earthquake or the result of a series of earthquakes in the final seventeen years of occupation.14Another contentious issue is to what extent Vesuvian settlements continued to be occupied in this period. It has been suggested that they were, at least, partially abandoned by the time of the AD 79 eruption.15

Seismic activity in the last 17 years of occupation of Pompeii

The ancient sources are unambiguous about the fact that the AD 62 earthquake was neither the first nor last in the region. The magnitude of the event just meant that it received more attention from ancient writers. In his account of this earthquake, Seneca16 noted that the Campanian region had never been free of earthquakes, though previous tremors had not caused significant damage. Both Suetonius17 and Tacitus18 mentioned an earthquake that shook Naples during a recital by the emperor Nero inAD 64. The theatre where the concert took place collapsed shortly after it was evacuated. Pliny the Younger19 stated that earth tremors were so frequently experienced in Campania that the populace had ignored the seismic activity that had occurred for a number of days prior to the AD 79 eruption.

Despite this evidence, the concept of change as a result of multiple or continuous seismic events in the latter years of Pompeii’s occupation has only been a comparatively recent consideration for archaeologists.20 It is notable that the notion of intermittent earthquakes throughout the period between AD 62 and 79 was accepted without argument in the volcanological literature, as earthquake activity often precedes volcanic eruptions.21 In 1957, Schefold proposed that there had been a second large earthquake to explain chronological inconsistencies in the evidence. This idea never gained general academic favour due to a lack of concrete evidence, especially from ancient literary sources.22

This issue was revisited, by scholars like Allison, in the 1990s.23 She examined the contents of 30 Pompeian residences and came to the conclusion that many of the signs of repair, change of function and abandonment that could be observed in Pompeii could be best explained by continued seismic activity in its last seventeen years.24 Her argument hinged on the premise that the artefact distribution patterns should present a uniform pattern for repair and decoration style for a date ofAD 62 to be ascribed. Similarly, patterns of artefact distribution related to damage and abandonment should show some homogeneity for them to be dated to either the AD 62 earthquake or theAD 79 eruption. She reasoned that if a relationship between assemblages showing disruption and damage, structural repair and room decoration was not apparent, it would suggest that such changes could possibly be attributed to a series of earthquakes in the years between AD 62 and 79.25 Her results showed that several phases of disruption and alteration could be identified in a number of houses, such as the Casa dei Vettii (VI, xv, 1–2) and the Casa del Sacello Iliaco (I, vi, 4). This led her to conclude that all the changes observed on the site could not be dated to the AD 62 earthquake and gave qualified support to a number of subsequent seismic events as the primary cause for alteration and repair. She acknowledged that consideration should also be given to other explanations.

It is not necessary for all restoration from an earthquake to date to the same period or for the building and decoration styles to be uniform. Repairs of earthquake damage can occur continuously over long periods of time. If restoration does not occur within a certain time, it is possible for further degradation or even collapse of buildings to occur. The major earthquake experienced by the region around Mt Vesuvius in 1980 can be used to demonstrate this point. More than ten years after this event, I observed that large numbers of people were still housed in refugee accommodation. Discussion with local residents confirmed that people were still waiting to be relocated to new premises. Without exception, the people involved were from the lower-income bracket, whereas people from higher socio-economic levels did not suffer this fate. This is consistent with the observations of scholars specializing in the recovery process after volcanic and seismic disasters. Though the actual disasters tend to affect all strata equally in terms of death and destruction of property, reconstruction tends to be anything but egalitarian.26 Further discussion with locals revealed that some people had abandoned damaged premises for other family property in the region, which was easier to restore or develop. Not all properties were restored at the same time.

Another possibility that has not received suf ficient attention by Pompeian scholars is that at least some of the observed occupation changes attributed to the last seventeen years of settlement at Pompeii were the result of factors unrelated to earthquake damage.27While there is no doubt that earthquakes were responsible for a number of the alterations that have been observed on Pompeian structures, it is rather simplistic to ascribe all such change in the years from AD 62 to 79 to a single event or cause.

The complexity of urban settlement patterns has been demonstrated by archaeological investigations of sites with long occupation sequences, like the English city of Winchester. A long-term project in Winchester revealed that changes over time, such as the abandonment of certain areas and changes in function of specific urban precincts, were influenced by a variety of factors. These included the change from Roman to Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance, shifts in national and religious importance of the town over time, increasing industrialization and the development of certain trades in specific areas.28 The conversion of some larger houses into apartments in Pompeii, for example, may simply have been a reflection of economic change. There is no need to invoke disasters to explain all the alterations in occupation and building usage in Pompeii.

Composition of the population of Pompeii in the last period of occupation

Perhaps the most dif ficult factor to assess in relation to changes between AD 62 and 79 is whether there was significant abandonment of the settlement by certain sections of the community and whether it had any impact on the composition of the population. The notion of abandonment probably dates back to Seneca,29 who railed against survivors for emigrating and refusing to return to the region. This, in turn, influenced Winckelmann in the eighteenth century. From the little he had been able to observe on his early abortive visits to Herculaneum, he considered that there was evidence for the abandonment of Pompeii and Herculaneum by a large number of the inhabitants after the AD 62 earthquake.30 The idea that Pompeii may have been entirely deserted after the earthquake was proposed in the second decade of the nineteenth century, but was rejected after much debate.31 The notion of partial abandonment has sporadically been suggested and has been resurrected in more recent literature.32

The lack of certain expected finds at Pompeii was traditionally interpreted as evidence of post-eruption looting.33 For example, numerous statue bases were found in the forum, though no trace remained of the statues that should have surmounted them. In addition, there was no evidence of most of the marble flagstones and veneers that once covered buildings in the forum. The possibility that this negative evidence could reflect pre-eruption abandonment has been offered as an alternative explanation. A number of scholars have argued that this resulted in a diminution of the population size in the last seventeen years of occupation.34 It has even been suggested, though only in popular literature, that the skeletons that have been discovered in the Campanian sites could represent the entire population in AD 79.35

While it is quite possible that there was a decrease in population size in the last seventeen years of Pompeii’s existence, it is extremely unlikely that the entire AD 79 population was killed by the eruption, given the literary references for survivors and the stratigraphic evidence that indicates the possibility of escape in the first phase of the eruption (see below). In addition, instigation of construction programmes that have been dated to the last 17 years of occupation, such as the building of a new bath complex, the socalled Central Baths or Terme Centrali (IX, iv, 5–18), implies that the population could not have been all that depleted. Evidence of continued occupation of structures during reconstruction adds weight to the argument that Pompeii was not abandoned in the years between the AD62 earthquake and the eruption. Scholars, like Dobbins, argue that such extensive construction work, especially in the Forum could be interpreted as a reflection of growth rather than decline.36 It has been suggested that it was only in the period immediately preceding the eruption that a considerable number of private residences were fully or partially abandoned as a response to intensified seismic activity.37

In terms of the interpretation of the human skeletal remains unearthed in Pompeii, there is no need to establish when abandonment occurred as the key issue is the determination of whether the sample of victims is likely to be representative of the AD 79 population.

The possible importation of labour for public building programmes and reconstruction work could also have contributed to alterations in the population structure in the last 17 years of occupation. These issues should be considered in the light of what is understood about the original composition of the Pompeian population.

The exact origins of Pompeii are uncertain. There is no conclusive evidence for its first settlement, though a number of scholars consider that it was initially occupied by an Italic population, the Oscans.38 The first century AD geographer Strabo wrote that Pompeii and Herculaneum were occupied over time by various groups of people: Oscans, Etruscans, Pelasgians, Samnites and Romans.39 The archaeological evidence for the earliest period is only now being revealed as there was a policy of not digging below the AD 79 layer prior to the last decade of the twentieth century to preserve the town as it appeared when it was destroyed.40

The earliest structural evidence at Pompeii, a supposedly Doric temple in the Triangular Forum (Reg VIII), was generally interpreted as Greek and said to date to the sixth century BC. On the basis of these remains and the introduction of the cult of Apollo from the Greek colony of Cumae, it was suggested that Pompeii was used as an outpost by the Greek colonists in South Italy to enable them to control the port associated with the town.41 Research and excavation of the structure in the Triangular Forum at the end of the twentieth century led to a reinterpretation of this temple as EtruscoItalic. This in turn has resulted in a reassessment of the issue of Greek dominance in Pompeii in the sixth century BC.42

Pompeii was dominated by the Samnites in the fifth century BC. The Samnites who settled in this region were known as the Campani and spoke the Oscan language. They were an Italic people who originated in the mountainous areas of the Abruzzi and Calabria. Pompeii remained an essentially Samnite centre, despite being an ally of Rome, until it became a Roman colony in 80 BC. The dictator, Sulla, imposed a colony of between two and four thousand veteran Roman soldiers and their families on Pompeii in that year as a punishment for earlier resistance.43

It has been generally assumed that Pompeii inAD 79, with its mixed background and its function as a river port, housed a heterogeneous population.44 The evidence to support this view has largely come from epigraphy. Oscan inscriptions etched on plaster, ostensibly dating to the last seventeen years of occupation, have been cited as evidence of the presence of Italic people. The identification of Greek names in a list of accounts and Greek inscriptions on walls and amphorae were seen as a reflection of a Greek element in the population. Similarly, names like Martha and Mary on wall inscriptions have been interpreted as Jewish and inscriptions on amphorae as Semitic.45 While such evidence has been considered proof of the presence of a Jewish community in Pompeii,46 it should be noted that certain scholars, like Mau, were circumspect about the interpretation of names inscribed on amphorae as they could reflect either the dealers of commodities or the owners of the estates where they were found.47 Wall paintings that have been interpreted as depictions of Old Testament subjects, such as the Judgment of Solomon48 have also been used as evidence for the presence of a Jewish community in Pompeii. More spurious is the identification of some sculptures as representations of Semitic types on the questionable basis of stereotypical features associated with Jews, like the shape of the nose. It has also been suggested that the discovery of a temple dedicated to Isis provided proof for the presence of Egyptians at Pompeii.49 Alternatively, it could be argued that this, like all the evidence cited above, merely implies that there was contact between different cultures.

It is possible that the Pompeian population was never as heterogeneous as suggested by the literary sources, which refer more to diversity in language and culture than genetic identity. Ultimately there is no certainty about the original make-up of the population. As a result, it is not possible to do more than postulate the types of changes that may have occurred in the final years of occupation.

It has been presumed that the people who chose to abandon the town were, on the whole, the members of the upper strata; people who were financially independent and whose economic base was not totally reliant on working the land in the Campanian region. A case has been mounted for some wealthy owners to have left their properties in the hands of their household staff during rebuilding.50

Evidence has also been presented to support the notion that the old aristocracy was replaced by nouveaux riches individuals, such as the Vettii brothers who were credited with the reconstruction and refurbishment of the so-called Casa dei Vettii (VI, xv, 1–2). Similarly, it has been suggested that the Villa dei Misteri changed hands to a Greek freedman called Zosimus after the earthquake, either because of abandonment or the death of the previous owner. It should be noted that the basis for the determination of the status of the presumed owners of property is often subjective and open to question. For example, it has been claimed that the Vettii brothers were wine merchants because of representations of Mercury and his attributes in the Casa dei Vettii.51

It is simplistic to assume that entire sections of the population abandoned Pompeii after AD 62. The discovery of a tomb enclosure outside Pompeii, for example, coupled with inscriptions found in Pompeii have been used to support the argument that, at least one élite family continued to exert influence in Pompeii after the AD 62 earthquake.52

It has also been suggested that though there may have been an initial drop in the population after the earthquake, growth would have resumed along with reconstruction. It is possible that new arrivals may have come from outside the region to meet the increased demand for people with building and wall painting skills in the final years of occupation.53

Although the archaeological evidence for this period is dif ficult to interpret, it does appear likely that there was some level of change to the Pompeian population in terms of size, and perhaps also composition, between AD 62 and 79. The available data suggest that the response of the population to the AD 62 earthquake and subsequent seismic activity was complex and varied. Ultimately, there is insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about the degree of alteration that may have occurred.54

Size of the population in AD 79

It barely needs to be stated that the value of a population study of the Pompeian skeletal remains would be greatly enhanced if we had some idea of the proportion of the community that was killed by the eruption. To determine this, it is necessary to know the size of the population at the time. We should also know the number of skeletons that have been uncovered over the last two hundred and fifty odd years.

There are no accurate figures for the size of the population of Pompeii on the eve of its destruction in AD 79. No ancient census information exists and estimates of the number of inhabitants vary widely between authors. The size of the population of Pompeii has been estimated to range between 6,400 and 30,000. The arguments for the various estimates have been discussed by a number of authors.55 The population figures of various scholars and their underlying rationales warrant a brief examination to demonstrate the problems associated with attempting to calculate population for this or any other ancient site.

The earliest estimate of between 18,000 and 20,000 Pompeian inhabitants in AD 79 was based on a calculation of the seating capacity of the amphitheatre.56 Fiorelli argued against this high figure as he considered that the space of about 40 cm that was allowed per person was too small. His recalculation of the number of individuals that the amphitheatre could hold was 12,807, based on the assumption that the space occupied by each person was 55 cm. This allowance is more generous than the 50.8 cm that is recommended for modern ergonomic bench design.57 There is no reason to assume that the requirements of the ancient users of the amphitheatre were substantially different to those of a modern population.

The choice of the amphitheatre as a guide to population size was almost certainly inspired by the account of Dio Cassius, which stated that all the inhabitants were assembled in this edifice to watch a game when Vesuvius erupted.58 Even though Dio Cassius’ description post-dated the event by about 150 years and despite the fact that no supporting archaeological evidence was found at the amphitheatre, archaeologists were not deterred from using it as the basis for population reconstruction.

Regardless of the number of people that the amphitheatre could hold, this structure does not provide a reliable indicator of the size of the Pompeian population. The literary evidence indicates that this building provided entertainment for the entire region. Tacitus records that in AD 59 the Roman Senate banned the use of the amphitheatre for ten years after riots broke out between Pompeian and Nucerian spectators at a gladiatorial event where more blood was spilled in the stands than in the arena.59

Fiorelli made a separate population calculation of 12,000, based on an extrapolation of his estimate of the number of excavated rooms onto the area of the site still to be excavated. The figure he obtained was based on the premise that the number of people who occupied the site was proportional to the number of rooms in a dwelling. His calculations were devised on the premise that most of the public buildings had already been excavated.60 The underlying assumption is clearly flawed as it can be readily demonstrated from various cultures in different geographical areas that the number of rooms in a residence does not necessarily relate to the number of occupants.

Nissen concluded that there had been about 20,000 inhabitants in Pompeii. His figure was also derived from rough calculations based on his observations of room and house numbers. He considered that Fiorelli’s figure was too low as he did not include upper storeys, which were not represented in the archaeological record.61 This population estimate has remained popular.62 Mau, for example, subscribed to this figure as a population minimum while Maiuri was slightly more circumspect and placed a ceiling of 20,000 for the size of the population.63

Beloch initially accepted Nissen ’s figure but later recalculated Pompeii’s population as more modest in size. He obtained a figure of 15,000 by assuming that there was a population density of 230 people per hectare within the walled area of the town.64 Frank suggested that there were about 25,000 occupants, whilst Cary and Scullard claimed that as many as 30,000 people inhabited Pompeii at the time of the eruption.65 Russell estimated a population density of 100–120 people per hectare, which yielded an estimate of between 6,400 and 6,700 individuals for the town with the possibility of another few hundred individuals inhabiting the suburban regions.66 Eschebach incorporated the results of excavations by Jashemski which revealed vineyards and gardens in the south-eastern part of the town in his determination of the number of Pompeian inhabitants in AD 79. He concluded that there would have been between 8,000 and 10,000 inhabitants. La Rocca concurs on this population range on the basis of the same evidence.67

Jashemski emphasized the need to exercise caution in the application of such estimates, as in the absence of ancient Pompeian population records, they could never be considered reliable. She subscribed to the view that the best way to estimate the size of the Pompeian population would be to undertake an investigation of land use in the city, and of the relative density of the buildings in relation to the quantity of open space. Jashemski favoured the lower figures for the Pompeian population as more reasonable in view of the abovementioned discovery of agricultural usage of the land in the south-eastern region of the site. The higher estimates of previous scholars were based on the assumption that this area, like that already excavated, would yield evidence of urban occupation.68Jongman and Wallace-Hadrill shared Jashemski’s reservations about the reliability of population estimates for Pompeii and criticized the methodologies for the calculation of population size.69

Jongman noted that urban population density is variable and archaeological evidence cannot be employed to take account of differences between populations. He stated that it would be impossible to assess the tolerance of the Pompeian population to cramped living conditions. Russell’s low figures, which were based on the assumption that the Pompeian urban population density was not likely to have been higher than that of medieval Europe, were criticized on the grounds that the structure of these two societies was not equivalent. Jongman gave qualified support to a population range of between 8,000 to 12,000 individuals. The discovery of agricultural property within the walled precinct meant that the high estimates of scholars like Nissen were untenable. These higher figures also suggested that Pompeii’s level of urbanization was comparable to that of Rome, which Jongman suggested was unlikely.70

Wallace-Hadrill also questioned the validity of the extrapolation of data from medieval towns onto Roman sites for the determination of population density as this practice denies temporal and cultural differences. In addition, he tackled the difficult issues of population changes over time and the period in Pompeian history that these population estimates are meant to reflect. All of the estimates that have been made of Pompeii’s population have, by necessity, been simplistic and could not take into account fluctuations in occupation levels in different periods. The calculations that have been made to reconstruct the population size of Pompeii in its last period of occupation have apparently not incorporated the possibility that the population may have been considerably reduced or otherwise altered as a result of the AD 62 earthquake and subsequent seismic activity. Wallace-Hadrill endorsed the notion that the destruction of Pompeii was not confined to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius inAD 79, but was probably a lengthy process, which commenced with theAD 62 earthquake. He also noted the fact that most scholars when presenting their population estimates do not indicate whether these figures are meant to reflect the population on the eve of theAD 79 eruption or in the pre-earthquake years of the first centuryAD.71

Wallace-Hadrill argued that had the archaeological data been better recorded, it may have been possible to gain a more accurate idea of the population size. He revisited the work of Fiorelli on the use of the number of rooms in each house as a basis for calculating population size. He considered that if it were possible to establish room function, it would be possible to reconstruct the size of households from the numbers of bedrooms, beds and socalled bed niches in walls. By his own admission, this approach has some problems, such as a degree of uncertainty as to the number of people who occupied each bed and whether all the beds were in constant use.72 No matter how carefully recorded, the archaeological evidence could never provide answers to these questions. Ultimately, Wallace-Hadrill concluded that the determination of an absolute figure for the size of Pompeii’s population was a futile exercise, though he did incline towards a figure of about 10,000.73

At best, population estimates can only provide a very rough guide to the size of Pompeii’s population.74 Such figures should be used with extreme caution as they tend to be based on simplistic and sometimes spurious assumptions.

Number of individuals thought to have perished and number of bodies that have been discovered

There is no reliable figure for the number of individuals who perished as a result of the AD 79 eruption in Pompeii. Gell estimated that at the time of publication of the second edition of his work in 1832, about 160 skeletons had been uncovered. He calculated that, in relation to the proportion of the site that had been excavated, this constituted about one eighth of the number of victims that could be expected to be found and, therefore, put a figure of 1,300 for the number that died.75 It is notable that Bulwer-Lytton, who relied on Gell and Bonucci for information about the site, only two years later gave an estimate of 350 to 400 for the number of skeletons that had been discovered.76 This suggests that estimates based on the poorly documented skeletal finds were variable and that the conclusions drawn from them were of limited value.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the estimate of the number of victims had risen to 2,000. This figure was calculated by Fiorelli and was also based on an extrapolation of the ratio of the estimated number of bodies that had been found to the area of the site that had been uncovered.77The figure of 2,000 as an approximation of the number of dead has never been revised and has been accepted virtually without question in the majority of publications on Pompeii.78 It should be noted that this number has also been used variously to describe the number of bodies that have been found.79 So powerful is the number 2,000 in the popular perception of the site that it has even been used for the number of survivors, rather than the number of deceased.80

Blong, who relied on sources that claimed that the number 2,000 referred to the number of individuals recovered, made a similar extrapolation to those made in the nineteenth century and calculated that, altogether, about 2,700 people were killed in the eruption. Russell also arrived at this figure, though he considered that the 2,000 skeletons thought to be in storage in Pompeii included several hundred from the region around Pompeii.81

Until recently,82 this number had never been subjected to the same scrutiny as the population estimates and virtually achieved the status of a magic number in Pompeii. The only exception to the use of this number can be seen in the estimate presented by Herbet and Bardossi. They claimed that the number of victims of the eruption totalled 16,000.83 No information was included as to how this figure was derived or whether it referred specifically to Pompeii or the entire region around Vesuvius.

There is no evidence to suggest that any estimate for the number of victims based on the extrapolation of the bodies found in a portion of the site would be reliable, because this assumes an even distribution of bodies across Pompeii.

As mentioned above, there was minimal documentation during the first century of excavation and estimates of the number of skeletons that were found during this period were not altogether reliable. The diaries of the excavations provide the key source of information for the period prior to 1860. The initiation of systematic recording by Fiorelli in the latter half of the nineteenth century could not compensate for the loss of information from the preceding generations of excavators. The skeletons that have been unearthed cannot be counted to provide an accurate total because of the postexcavation treatment of skeletal material, including reburial, poor storage and removal of some of the material to be stored in collections that are not easily accessible.84

Despite these problems, De Carolis and Patricelli85 undertook the gargantuan task of examining all the available literature in an attempt to determine the best approximation of the number of bodies that have been revealed by the excavations in Pompeii. They have been able to account for 1047 individuals, including three victims that were found in 2002. This figure is based on the official Pompeii diaries and excavation reports where exact numbers were provided. A number of reports only give a rough guess of the number of skeletons found in a group or merely indicate that several skeletons were revealed at a particular location without any attempt at quantification. De Carolis and Patricelli estimated that despite the lack of precision in reporting, probably no more than 1150 skeletons have been found during the course of excavations at Pompeii. They note that this number still falls somewhat short of the 2000 victims usually mentioned in the literature.

The information that has been presented regarding the size and composition of the Pompeian population prior to the eruption underlines the difficulty of interpreting a sample of bones that merely represent the victims of the eruption. To gain some appreciation of what sort of sample these victims may represent, it is necessary to examine issues that relate to the possibility of survival from this eruption, such as the form it took and its duration.

The eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79

It has generally been assumed that the inhabitants of the region around Vesuvius were unprepared for the AD 79 eruption.86 Ancient sources indicate that they were unaware that Mt Vesuvius was an active volcano. This is largely based on Strabo,87 who described Vesuvius as an extinct volcano and Pliny the Elder who considered Vesuvius to be a benign element in the Campanian landscape.88 The stratigraphic evidence, which reveals that the volcano was dormant for at least 700 years before the AD 79 event, supports the notion that there was no historical memory of the mountain as a potential source of danger to the region.89 It has often been suggested that the Pompeians made no association between the earthquake of AD 62 and renewed volcanic activity on Mt Vesuvius.90

The main ancient literary source for the eruption comes from two letters written by the Younger Pliny to Tacitus.91 The first deals with the events that lead to the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, as a direct result of the eruption. The second deals with his own experiences at Misenum, about 30 kilometres to the west of Mt Vesuvius. Though Pliny the Younger was an eyewitness to the events of AD 79, the reliability of his account of Vesuvius’ eruption needs to be assessed. First, the letters were probably written some time betweenAD 104 and 107, at least 25 years after the event. Second, Pliny’s perception of the eruption was of a less devastating event than that experienced by towns like Pompeii and Herculaneum, as he witnessed it from a significant distance in a region that suffered comparatively little damage.92 Third, despite the fact that Pliny the Younger’s description has been lauded as a well-observed, valuable volcanological account,93 it is apparent that this was not the principal agenda for the letters.

Pliny the Younger ’s first letter was written in reply to Tacitus’ request for information about the death of his uncle, who was well known both as an encyclopaedist and the commander of the Roman fleet in Misenum. Pliny the Elder’s initial aim was to inspect and record the eruption from close quarters. This was altered in response to a request for help from his friend, Rectina, whose only means of escape from her villa at the base of the mountain was by sea. Not only did he fail in his rescue attempt but he also did not manage to return with a first-hand account of the event. His mission was an unmitigated failure and ultimately led to his demise. It is generally presumed that Pliny the Elder died of respiratory complications at Stabiae. Eco94 argued that the first letter of Pliny the Younger was primarily written to vindicate the actions of his uncle. The Younger Pliny obviously desired his uncle to be remembered as a hero who was martyred to the cause of science rather than an incompetent rescuer.

Another concern about the accuracy of Pliny ’s description of the event is that stylistic similarities have been observed between his letters to Tacitus and the so-called Etna poem. The latter is an anonymous work, which describes an eruption of the famous Sicilian volcano in AD 40. It has been suggested that Pliny the Younger based his letters on the poem, which may have exerted some influence on his account.95

Dio Cassius96 also wrote of the AD 79 eruption. His account postdated the volcanic event by about 150 years and is rather more fanciful than that of the Younger Pliny. He claimed that prior to the eruption, numerous huge men were observed wandering over the earth and flying through the air, and that their shapes could be seen in the smoke emanating from Mt Vesuvius. All this was apparently accompanied by the sound of trumpets. Suetonius gave a passing mention to the eruption, in terms of the aid Titus proposed to give to the survivors.97

The date of the eruption

While there has been some discussion of the year in which Mt Vesuvius erupted, most scholars accept that it occurred in AD 79.98 Establishing the actual date of the event is more controversial. Despite the fact that the majority of authors writing on Pompeii confidently ascribe a date of 24 August for the eruption,99 the evidence is not conclusive. This issue is worthy of consideration for a study of the human remains from the site as knowledge of the season in which the eruption occurred could provide some insight into the composition of the population of Pompeii at the time of its destruction.

It has been generally assumed that villas owned by wealthy Roman citizens were mostly used as summer resorts. This assertion is probably based on the knowledge that a number of these coastal properties were, at various times, owned by citizens who were obviously based in Rome, like the dictator Sulla, who had a villa near Cumae, and the Emperor Augustus, who had a retreat on Capri.100 Strabo stated that the whole Bay of Naples appeared like a continuous town as a result of the number of villas that lined the coastline.101 Many of these villas were owned by Romans. For example, the Younger Pliny had six villas, Cicero three, and it is thought, on the basis of evidence from inscriptions, that the Villa of Oplontis near Pompeii may have at one time belonged to Nero’s wife, Poppaea. Chance finds that included inscriptions have also been employed as evidence to suggest that the family of the latter, the Poppaei, were the owners of the so-called Casa degli Amorini dorati (VI, xvi, 7) and Casa del Menandro (I, x, 4) in Pompeii, though it must be noted that these attributions are problematic as they tend to be based on spurious evidence.102 If it were possible to establish the exact time of the year when Mt Vesuvius erupted, we could infer whether or not there was likely to have been a significant presence of Roman residents among the victims who would only have been living there in the summer months.

The various versions of the letters of Pliny the Younger that have survived suggest dates of either 3, 23 November or 24 August. It has been claimed that the August date came from a more reliable version of Pliny’s text.103 Dio Cassius104 mentioned autumn as the season of the eruption, but one must bear in mind that he wrote a considerable time after the event. Also, there is no consensus with respect to the length of this season in the ancient world. Opinion varies and suggestions have been made that autumn ranged from mid-August to mid-December or from mid-September to midNovember. Contradictory archaeological finds of seasonal fruit and other plant remains, evidence of wine-making activities, carpets and braziers, have been used to support claims for both summer and late autumn. The venerable scholar Mau,105 supported 24 August as the first day of the eruption and despite the lack of any definitive evidence, this date gained acceptance. The bombing of Pompeii on 24 August 1943 may have given further weight to the choice of this date as a result of a superstitious belief that there was some significance associated with this coincidence.106 The debate was reopened in the 1990s by Pappalardo, who argued for the November date. In addition to the traditional arguments for an autumn eruption, he claimed that the impressions of clothing on casts of the bodies of Pompeians suggested the use of heavy materials, more consistent with cooler weather than that generally encountered in August. This argument was supported by the discovery of a skeleton in 1984 at Herculaneum with traces of a fur beret.107

Apart from the problems associated with interpretations of clothing on casts (see Chapter 10), there may be another explanation for such discoveries. It is possible that the inhabitants may have donned heavier clothing as protection against falling debris. Pliny the Younger’s first letter to Tacitus108 mentioned that people tied pillows to their heads for this purpose. Similarly, the bodies in the garden of the Casa del Criptoportico (I, vi, 2) were discovered with roof tiles covering their heads.109

This contentious issue may well have been resolved by the recent publication of a silver denarius by Grete Stefani.110 It was found in a context that could be securely dated to the AD 79 eruption level below the Casa del Bracciale dOro in the Insula Occidentalis (VI, xvii, 42). This coin was found in 1974, along with 179 other silver and 40 gold coins, a gemstone and a ring, which were carried by victims in flight. The coin in question is a denarius of Titus and the inscription refers to his 15th imperatorial acclamation, which, according to Dio Cassius, occurred as a result of Agricola’s conquests in Britain. Stefani cites epigraphic evidence with 7 and 8 September dates, which only attribute 14 acclamations to Titus. She convincingly argues for the versions of Pliny the Younger’s letters that indicate an autumn date as the coin must have been minted after 8 September in AD 79. The eruption sequence

An understanding of the form of the eruption enables us to establish the principal causes of death of the AD 79 victims. It also helps determine the potential for individuals to have escaped. Until the last few decades, opinion was divided about the exact nature of the event that destroyed the towns in the region of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79. Traditionally, it was considered that the rapid build up of air-fall ash and pumice, known as tephra, accounted for the majority of deaths.111 This approach is exemplified in the volcanological work of Bullard, who described the AD 79 eruption as a classic example of a Vulcanian type of eruption. There are several types of eruptions, each associated with specific phases and types of eruption material.112 Bullard’s classification is consistent with Pliny the Younger’s description of the eruption process.113 Pliny employed the shape of a Mediterranean umbrella pine as a metaphor for the shape of the cloud that rose above Vesuvius. Pliny’s description of what he viewed from Misenum has been considered to be a valuable contribution to volcanology and is commemorated by the descriptor ‘Plinian’ for explosive eruptions that are characterized by high eruption columns of ash pumice and volcanic gases.114

The second school of thought has become the accepted interpretation. This argues that there were, in fact, two phases in the AD 79 eruption. The first was a Plinian period of pumice and ash fall. This was followed by a phase of nuées ardentes, or pyroclastic density currents, after the collapse of the eruption column. Nuée ardente is a blanket term that has been used to cover both pyroclastic surges and pyroclastic flows. These are respectively dilute turbulent clouds of particles that are suspended in gas and hot air and dense avalanches of concentrated particles. They are composed of pumice, ash and gas. The direction of a pyroclastic flow is determined by the underlying topography, whilst that of the low density, highly turbulent surge is not dependent on ground features. As a result, a surge can spread radially from the crater at greater speed than a pyroclastic flow.115 The notion of the AD 79 event as a two-phase eruption dates back to the eruption of Mt Pelée, Martinique in 1902, when an estimated 29,000 people were killed by a series of hot gas avalanches and has provided the term ‘Peléan’ for similar types of events. Parallels with the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption were recognized as early as 1903 and various scholars have propagated this view.116 The definitive work was done by Sigurdsson and his team, who made a detailed stratigraphic examination of the region, with specific reference to the AD 79 layers and were able to clearly identify the different phases from the strata.117

The only real criticism that can be levelled at the work of Sigurdsson is his almost unquestioning use of the letters of the Younger Pliny as a totally reliable source for the sequence and chronology of the eruption.118 This is probably the result of the influence of the key aim of his initial research project in the Vesuvian region, which was to tie in the evidence of Pliny the Younger’s account with the excavations in Herculaneum and Pompeii.119 The widely accepted120 hour-by-hour, and sometimes even half-hour, chronology is essentially based on two events.121 The first is the time that Pliny the Elder’s sister is said to have pointed out the umbrella pine shaped cloud.122 This has been used to determine that the first violent phase of this explosive eruption began at about one o’clock in the afternoon. The second is the account of events in Pliny’s second letter.123 The current interpretation of this text is that he and his mother were forced to flee Misenum by a surge at about eight o’clock on the morning of the second day of the eruption. At the very least, it is misleading to describe the precise time of each event in the eruption sequence, as it gives the impression of greater certainty than is provided by the available evidence. The use of this chronology is problematic as it is predicated on the accuracy of Pliny the Younger’s memory after an interval of about a quarter of a century.

Most of the literature that deals with eyewitness accounts concerns crime scenes but the results of this work are still appropriate for appraising Pliny the Younger’s account. Memory is complex and can be unintentionally distorted to fulfil the expectations of the witness. Consequently, eyewitness memory is notoriously unreliable as demonstrated by numerous studies.124 Various factors affect central and peripheral memory and what is perceived as such, and, depending on the event, it is possible that central and peripheral information can be interchangeable. Details that are not of primary interest tend not to be so well remembered.125 The provision of a description of the eruption was by no means the principal agenda of Pliny the Younger’s account of his uncle’s death and the timing of the event was of even less importance. The reliability of Pliny’s retrieval of information that was so peripheral to the main story, especially after such a long period of time, can be questioned.

It is notable that the in fluence of an earlier interpretation of the account of Pliny the Younger probably was responsible for scholars, like Bullard, discounting the possibility that nuées ardentes were a feature of this eruption.126 The weight given to Pliny’s account is a reflection of the emphasis that has traditionally been placed on primary literary sources over physical evidence.

According to Sigurdsson, the first phase of the eruption, as it was experienced in Pompeii, occurred over a period that he arguably estimated to have lasted at least eighteen hours and resulted in a layer of ash and pumice up to 2.8 metres. Since air-fall deposits do not tend to be lethal, Sigurdsson considered that there probably would have only been a relatively small number of deaths in this phase as a result of roofs collapsing due to the weight of lapilli. He estimated that ash and pumice were deposited in the first seven or eight hours at Pompeii at a rate of 12–15 cm an hour. The accumulated weight would probably have caused roofs to collapse after several hours, probably when about 40 cm had been deposited. It has been suggested that roof collapse would probably have provided substantial incentive for people who had taken refuge in their houses to consider evacuation of the town. Falling volcanic debris may also have been responsible for some loss of life. In addition to the ash and pumice, there were lithic clasts which are pieces of rock that derive from the walls of the vent of the volcano. They are far more dangerous than pumice due to their greater density. It has been estimated that some of the lithic clasts at Pompeii were travelling at speeds of 50 metres per second when they hit the ground. Nonetheless, Sigurdsson argued that these would not have accounted for many deaths as they were only observed in very small numbers in the deposit, thus lowering the probability of individuals being hit.127

Sigurdsson suggested that this phase was not only associated with a minimal number of fatalities but that the phenomenon of the ash fall would have alerted the inhabitants of the danger to which they were being exposed and encouraged most of them to escape before the lethal second stage of the eruption. He did concede that escape would have been difficult as fugitives from this phase of the eruption would have had to contend with a thick layer of loose pumice in a dark environment.128

The second eruption phase was marked by a series of hot gas avalanches or nuées ardentes. This was the most lethal period in the eruption as evidenced by the number of bodies that were found above the layer of pumice. It has been observed that nuées ardentes are associated with a particularly high death to injury ratio, especially when compared with other types of natural disasters.129

Sigurdsson and his team examined the stratigraphy of the entire region that was affected by the AD 79 eruption. He concentrated on establishing the cause of death of the victims from Herculaneum but argued that his findings were also applicable to Pompeii. He considered that variation in the physical appearance of the remains in the two sites only reflected differences in posteruption groundwater levels (also see Chapter 10). All the human bodies that were discovered at the waterfront of Herculaneum from the 1980s on were found in association with what Sigurdsson identified as the first surge layer (S1). The stratigraphic evidence indicates that the majority of the Herculaneum victims were killed by this surge (S1), which did not extend as far as Pompeii. A superficial examination of the positions of the bodies suggested that they met their fate fairly rapidly.

The second and third surges that Sigurdsson identi fied also did not affect Pompeii. The fourth surge (S4) reached Pompeii some hours later, followed only minutes later by the fifth surge (S5). The fourth surge was lethal and Sigurdsson argued that it would have been responsible for the death of any occupants who had remained in the town. It was observed that the majority of the documented victims have been found within the layers of the fourth and fifth surges (S4 and S5). The bodies of these victims were subsequently covered by the thick deposit associated with the sixth surge (S6). This surge was extremely destructive and was responsible for the collapse of the walls of the highest buildings and the displacement of building materials, as well as a few of the bodies of victims.130

It is notable that until consensus was reached in the latter part of the twentieth century, Pompeian skeletal evidence was used to support opposing theories about the eruption. Often the same skeletons were subjected to different interpretations as can be seen, for example, in the work of Bullard and Sigurdsson. Both scholars cited reports of a number of bodies that were uncovered at least three metres above ground level in 1812 in the presence of Queen Caroline Murat, along with discoveries of individuals with their hands in front of their mouths. Bullard employed this evidence in an attempt to prove that the AD 79 eruption did not include nuées ardentes and that the main cause of death was asphyxiation due to ash and poisonous gases in the first few hours of the eruption, whilst Sigurdsson used it to support an interpretation of death from the effects of a pyroclastic surge.131The evidence is clearly more consistent with the latter. It makes far more sense to explain bodies found above the layer of ash and lapilli as those of people who survived the initial phase of tephra fall only to succumb to the surge, which can easily be identified in exposed sections of the site.132

Luongo et al., along with De Carolis and Patricelli, published the results of more recent stratigraphic studies of the region, in conjunction with the available information on the stratigraphic level and location of the victims that have been documented from the excavations in Pompeii since 1748.133 These indicate that some modification of Sigurdsson’s conclusions are required, especially in relation to number of deaths in each phase of the eruption.

Evidence for the cause of death

Establishing the exact details of the deaths of the victims is dif ficult, though it is possible to gain a general picture of how the majority of the victims met their fate. Sigurdsson suggested that the stratigraphic evidence was consistent with that associated with eruptions like Mt St Helens in 1980, which in turn could be used to assess the likely relative causes of death of the victims.134 It is important, however, to remember that there can be considerable variation between individual mountains and eruptions, including those within the same volcanic category.135 Despite the fact that both the 1980 Mt St Helens and the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius were probably Peléan in nature, it is quite possible that the major causes of death were not identical.

Autopsy reports of 26 of the 67 known victims of the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens in North America revealed that the majority of deaths were caused by asphyxiation. The bodies were found to contain an occlusal plug of mucus and ash in the trachea, larynx and upper respiratory tract. Five of the victims were diagnosed as having died of thermal shock. In two of these cases, asphyxiation was also a contributing factor. The other three bodies displayed no evidence of asphyxiation but appeared to have been baked in the surge deposit. Their extremities were mummified and the internal organs showed signs of shrinkage and desiccation. Only three out of the 25 bodies that were autopsied were killed by projectiles, namely trees or rocks that were borne by the surge. Analysis of the blood of the victims indicated that they had not inhaled toxic gases from the surge cloud. This is probably because the victims were asphyxiated before they could have been affected by gases.136

Sigurdsson extrapolated the results from these autopsy reports onto the victims of the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, suggesting that the stratigraphic evidence and the positions of the corpses were consistent with a rapid death from a volcanic surge. He did not consider that the temperatures were high enough for the victims to have succumbed to thermal shock (see below). He postulated that the majority of the victims died of burns and asphyxiation within a few minutes.137


As mentioned above, Sigurdsson did not consider that the first phase of the eruption was associated with a high mortality rate. De Carolis and Patricelli138 made an exhaustive study of the Pompeian excavation diaries and journals, dating from the first excavations, to determine where and when documented victims died. They established that the 394 victims in the pumice that was associated with the first phase of the eruption were found in the layer that spanned, depending on the underlying topography, from ground level up to 2.6 to 2.8 metres. These victims represent 38 per cent of the 1044 known victims from Pompeii, which is clearly at odds with Sigurdsson’s claim. It has been assumed that they were mostly killed by the collapse of walls and roofs as a result of the accumulation of ash and pumice. This argument is supported by the fact that 345 of these individuals were found inside buildings as compared to 49 discovered in outdoor locations. The outdoor deaths presumably occurred as a result of collapsing building material or victims being struck by larger lithic fragments, which could be up to 17 cm in size.139

Luongo et al.140 stated that some of the skulls found in the deposit associated with the first phase of the eruption exhibited skull fractures. They cite this as evidence for tephra-related deaths due to falling structural elements. They do not provide a source for this claim but other scholars who have presented this argument have relied on the accounts of William Hamilton.141 While Hamilton provides an invaluable source for the eighteenthcentury excavations he witnessed, he was not qualified to differentiate between perimortem fractures, which are those that occur at or around the time of death, and post-mortem breaks that may have resulted from the pressure of earth on a skull over a long period of time. I did not observe any unequivocal evidence for tephra-related deaths in the Pompeian skeletal record, though one skull displayed damage that was consistent with having received a blow at or about the time of death.142

Sigurdsson considered that the second phase of the eruption was the truly lethal phase. Surge clouds, for example, have been found to travel at speeds reaching 100 to 300 kilometres per hour. They are very turbulent and have been known to transport objects, such as rocks and building materials. In addition, they generally have very high temperatures, ranging from 100 to over 400 degrees Celsius. Volcanic surges tend to have low levels of free oxygen and can carry dangerous levels of toxic gases.143 They are generally incompatible with survival, though recent modelling by Baxter et al. (1998), to determine survival prospects for people in a region exposed to pyroclastic density currents suggests that certain locations can provide significant protection. Pompeian skeletons and casts, especially those that were left in situ, combined with the stratigraphic evidence from Herculaneum, have been used to provide evidence for the majority of deaths having resulted from a nuée ardente or pyroclastic density current. Certainly, more recently excavated human remains, such as those from the Casa di Stabianus (I, xxii, 1–2), were found in the ash layer above the lapilli of the first eruption phase (Figures 1.1, 4.1).144 The number of documented bodies recovered from the ash of the second phase is considerably higher than those found in the deposit associated with the Plinian phase of the eruption. Of the 653 victims from this phase, 334 were found inside buildings and 319 were uncovered either along the roads or in open spaces.145

Figure 4.1 Detail of one of the fugitives from the Casa di Stabianus (I, xxii), demonstrating the stratigraphy with the victim clearly situated in the ash layer above the lapilli of the first eruption phase

The bodies found indoors have been interpreted as those who had apparently stayed in their houses to wait out the eruption and included those who had sought refuge in the upper and lower floors, or in basement-level spaces as they provided shelter from the falling ash and pumice stones. Of the victims that were found inside dwellings, 168 were discovered on upper floors and 166 at groundfloor level. Those who died, both inside and outside of houses, in the second phase of the eruption can generally be distinguished by being buried between the ash layers associated with the fourth and fifth surges. However, some of the victims were found within a pyroclastic density current layer above the one associated with S4 and S5. Luongo et al.146 and Giacomelli et al.147 argue that these victims survived these surges and were able to walk around above the S5 layer, though their ability to cover much distance before they died would have been impeded by breathing difficulties resulting from ash particle pollution. They suggest that S4 and S5 were not associated with such high temperatures. Giacomelli et al. also consider that the evidence indicates that the pyroclastic density currents that overwhelmed Pompeii may have had a low-temperature frontal part, which presents as a few layers of ash in the stratigraphy, while the rear part shows evidence of non-uniform behaviour, possibly due to the influence of the structures in its path.148

Excavations that have been undertaken outside the walls of Pompeii, while limited, have yielded a considerable number of victims, including 28 within the pumice and ash of the first phase and 208 within the deposit produced by the pyroclastic density currents. It is likely that at least some of these people were attempting to escape by sea from the region around Pompeii. Further excavation will doubtless reveal more victims.

The cause of death can, at least, be inferred from an examination of the conditions of well-documented skeletons. The poses of the casts also reveal details about the manner of death and the time it took. Luongo et al.149 interpret the fact that the majority of the victims have been found intact, with no sign of carbonization, as indicative of ash asphyxiation. Further, the discovery of victims who occupied more than one layer of the pyroclastic density current deposits led them to suggest that death was not always instantaneous. Some individuals, like the one who has been preserved as a cast leaning on one arm from the Garden of the Fugitives (I, xxi; Figure 4.3), appear to have attempted to support themselves for a period of time prior to succumbing. They suggest that this is partly because the temperatures to which the Pompeian victims were exposed were not very high and it has even been suggested that they were not in excess of 100 degrees Celsius. Giacomelli et al. also argue that suffocation was the main cause of death and that the preservation of objects like glass, cloth, frescoes and skeletons precludes the possibility that there were burn injuries.150

Figure 4.2 Cast of the so-called ‘Lady of Oplontis’, which displays a ‘pugilistic’ pose (Photograph courtesy of Associate Professor Chris Griffiths)

These accounts are at variance with the interpretation of the casts by Baxter,151 who examined photographs of 41 complete casts and observed that about half of them were frozen in positions that were consistent with exposure to extremely high temperatures at or about the time of death. The poses of the casts of the Pompeian victims appeared very similar to those of more recent eruptions, such as those of Mt Pelée, Martinique in 1902 and Mt Lamington, New Guinea in 1951. The corpses from these eruptions were observed in a number of different positions, though the majority were prone with the hands against the face or with an extended spine and flexed limbs (see Figure 4.2).152 This latter position is described as ‘pugilistic’ in the forensic literature and is considered typical of perimortem exposure to at least 200–250 degrees Celsius. Muscles can be charred or coagulated when heated intensely and this may cause muscular contraction, which can be observed as flexion of the limbs. Contraction occurs as a result of the effect of heat on protein. Differential contraction occurs at the joint, the direction being determined by the more powerful muscle with the greatest surface area. Clearly, such poses do not necessarily reflect the final position of the body in life. The observed frequency of its occurrence in Pompeii is consistent with that from modern forensic contexts.153

The non-pugilistic poses that can be observed in the Pompeian cast collection require different explanations. It appears that a few of these victims (for example, Figure 4.3) were preserved in the positions they had assumed at the time of death. Though this phenomenon, known as cadaveric spasm, is not altogether understood, it has been explained in terms of total muscle contraction in the body at the time of death, specifically in cases of sudden and violent death. It would be expected to wear off, along with normal rigor mortis about 18–36 hours after death.154 In the case of the Pompeian victims, the effect of thermal coagulation of the muscles may have been a factor in preservation of poses, though the fact that the bodies would have been covered fairly soon after death was probably also significant.

Figure 4.3 The pose of this cast from the Orto dei Fuggiaschi (Garden of the Fugitives) (I, xxi) has been interpreted as an example of cadaveric spasm

Surveys of historic volcanic disasters reveal that pyroclastic density currents account for the greatest number of deaths directly related to the eruption process.155 The main causes of death associated with these have been identified as fulminant shock, asphyxia, thermal lung injury and deep thickness burns. Documentation from more recent eruptions demonstrates that few individuals survive pyroclastic density currents. It has been observed that such individuals tended to have been exposed to the more dilute parts of the current or were in some way able to obtain shelter, usually indoors. There have been a few reported cases of survival outdoors but only at the margins of currents. Nonetheless, all such survivors have been found to be at risk from fatal pulmonary or laryngeal oedema resulting from respiratory burns and deep thickness skin burns. Individuals can receive substantial burns to the skin and respiratory tract without any damage to their clothing due to the short exposure time to hot ash.156 It should be noted that, according to studies of the pyroclastic density currents associated with the AD eruption by Giuroli et al., there could have been localized cooler zones in the lower part of the current, which may have increased the chances of survival for a few Pompeians.157

It has been argued that it is somewhat simplistic to assume that most of the deaths from the AD 79 event would have been from asphyxiation as it can be demonstrated that in these circumstances hyperthermia, or overheating, can also be a significant cause of death. Comparisons between the bodies of victims examined after the eruptions of Soufriére Hills volcano, Montserrat in 1997, Mt Pelée, Mt Lamington, Mt Vesuvius and Mt St Helens led Baxter to conclude that the bodies in the latter were not exposed to as much heat as those of the former four eruptions since there was no evidence of pugilism in the poses of the corpses from Mt St Helens. In addition, the survival of various cultural objects, such as paint, colour film and polystyrene insulation, suggests that they were not exposed to very high temperatures. Three of the four bodies found just outside the perimeter of the direct flow zone of the nuée ardente, about fifteen kilometres distant from the summit of Mt St Helens, were found with clear airways. This indicated that death occurred almost instantaneously as a result of extreme hyperthermia. Baxter therefore concluded that many of the individuals exposed to the greater heat intensity of the former three eruptions would have ceased to breathe before asphyxiation could have occurred.158

Determination of the exact cause of death provides an indication of the length of time that it would have taken to die. Though it is generally accepted that the fourth surge, as described by Sigurdsson, was responsible for the majority of Pompeian deaths, not enough physical evidence has survived to establish exactly how most individuals met their fate. It is likely that hyperthermia was a major cause of death in the second phase of the eruption and that many victims would have died rapidly, though it should be noted that the poses of the casts do not provide clear supporting evidence as it is possible that the bodies were only exposed to heat after death.159


Further excavation at the Herculaneum beachfront in the two decades since the groundbreaking work of Sigurdsson and his team has revealed numerous additional victims and contributed to the discussion about regional differences in the experience of the event. Over three hundred skeletons were exposed by 2005. The majority were found in the barrel-vaulted boatchambers beneath the Suburban Quarter. Fifty-nine individuals were found on the beach. A large number of the skeletons lie directly on the beach, while others lie within the surge deposit, between five and fifteen centimetres above the original surface of the beach. It was initially argued that all the skeletons that were found in the first surge deposit (S1) showed no signs of being carbonized, whilst those where portions of the victims protruded and were exposed to the greater heat of the second surge (S2) show signs of carbonization.160

Capasso undertook a multidisciplinary approach to establish cause of death of the victims at the sea front, which included examination of the taphonomic, anthropological and archaeological evidence.161 Based on the position of the bodies, the distribution of burnt areas and histological changes in bone tissue, he concluded that differences could be observed in the manner of death between victims on the beach and those in the boat sheds. According to Capasso, the victims on the beach experienced the dehydrating effects of the surge, which resulted in the complete burning of bones. X-ray analysis indicated that the cracking patterns were not consistent with very high temperatures, though macroscopic and microscope studies produced results that indicated exposure to temperatures between 350 and 400° Celsius. A few cases were observed where high temperatures had caused rapid evaporation of the brain, which had caused the sutures of the skull to open. He argued that on the basis of histological studies, the bones of the individuals he observed in the boat sheds were also exposed to similar temperatures but, because of slower dehydration in a more protected environment, some soft tissue was preserved. He did not find any evidence of damage to skulls from evaporation of the brain but interpreted skull fractures that he observed as being consistent with post mortem damage from projectiles associated with the second surge. Like Sigurdsson, he considered that asphyxiation could have been a likely cause of death for a number of those victims who sought shelter in the boat sheds, though thermal shock would have accounted for a few cases.

Eighty skeletons from four of the 12 boat-chambers were recently examined in a multidisciplinary study headed by Mastrolorenzo.162 In contrast, the results of this research have led to the claim that rather than dying of asphyxiation, these victims died from fulminant shock. This means that their vital organs ceased to function so abruptly there was no time for conscious reaction. The poses of these individuals have been used to confirm this interpretation as there are no signs of defensive gestures or positions that would suggest suffering. From palaeomagnetic analysis of a tile collected outside chamber 12 and what has been interpreted as heat damage to the bones and teeth of the victims, it has been suggested that the first surge was associated with a temperature that may have been as high as 500 degrees Celsius. Exposure to such heat would have caused almost instantaneous death. A number of the skeletons have fractures that are commonly observed on incinerated bodies, such as transversal clear-cut fractures with blackened edges and longitudinal fractures on the shafts of the long and flat bones. Like Capasso, Mastrolorenzo et al. noted that some of the skulls displayed blackened surfaces on cranial openings, inner skull surfaces and open sutures, which they interpreted as a reflection of high temperatures causing the brain to boil. Cracking of the dental enamel and changes in colour of the bones were also consistent with incineration.

While ongoing debate re flects a lack of consensus on the details of the deaths of the victims of the AD 79 event, it is clear that individuals who were killed by pyroclastic density currents met their deaths quickly from exposure to high temperatures and severe particle pollution.

Survival factors

Whether people knew of Mt Vesuvius ’ status as a volcano with the potential for eruption or appreciated the danger to which they were being exposed once the process commenced would have been significant in the determination of the need to escape. This is a relevant consideration for assessing the validity of more recent volcanic events as models for the possible behaviour of the Pompeians at the outset of the disaster.

An argument has been presented to suggest that the residents of the Campanian region may have been aware of the potential danger of Mt Vesuvius, though there is ultimately no compelling evidence to prove this point.163 Ancient literature, including Diodorus Siculus,164 Suetonius165 and the Etna Poem,166 have been cited to demonstrate that volcanic activity was known and understood by Romans in the first century AD. Diodorus Siculus, as a Sicilian, was familiar with the volcanic activity of Mt Etna and he recognized that Mt Vesuvius had been a volcano in the past. He did not suggest that it was still capable of activity and his writing implies, as does that of Strabo,167 that the mountain was seen to be extinct. Modern scholars have dated the Etna poem to the years preceding the AD62 earthquake because the poet considered Campania was not volcanically active.168This has been used as a basis for the questionable assumption that an understanding of the relationship between the earthquake and the commencement of a renewed volcanic cycle must, therefore, have existed after the AD 62 event.169 Though Pliny did observe that earthquakes tended to portend major events, there is certainly no suggestion of any knowledge of Mt Vesuvius being a volcano in any of the Elder Pliny’s work.170

Conversely, it has been reasoned that the Pompeians could not have been aware of the risk of Mt Vesuvius erupting as refugees from volcanic activity on Ischia in the fourth century BC settled on its slopes.171 Plutarch’s account of Spartacus,172 who sought shelter from the Roman army on the summit of Mt Vesuvius in 73 BCafter he escaped from Capua with 78 other gladiators, has also been presented as evidence that the mountain was not considered to be dangerous prior to the AD 79 eruption. It should be noted that the strength of the argument based on these examples is tempered by the fact that they predate the AD 79 eruption by a considerable time and that it is possible that there could have been a better understanding of volcanic risks by the first century AD. The Younger Pliny’s first letter presents more convincing evidence for this view.173 Pliny stated that it was not initially known which mountain was associated with the phenomenon that he and his uncle observed from Misenum. This letter certainly implies that the event was unexpected. The fact that the Elder Pliny immediately prepared to go to sea to investigate at closer range suggests that he did not comprehend the risks this posed.

Whatever the case, it does appear that a number of people did manage to escape as demonstrated by the literature and implied by the comparatively small number of skeletons that have been found in a town of this size.174 It should be borne in mind that the majority of excavations to date have been within the walls of Pompeii and it is possible that many victims are yet to be found outside Pompeii.175

Though instructive when used to establish the possible causes of death, recent events like the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980 are probably of limited value for gaining an insight into the types of people who would have been more likely to perish. The Mt St Helens eruption apparently differed from that of Vesuvius in AD 79 in that there was sufficient warning to enable most of the inhabitants to be evacuated before the lethal phase. Victims included thrill seekers and journalists.176 It is possible that there were some equivalent individuals in the AD 79 eruption, the most likely historical candidate being the Elder Pliny. There is no doubt, however, that such victims were in the minority. Other recent eruptions, such as Taal, Philippines (1965) Galunggung, Indonesia, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea (1983–85), El Chichón, Mexico (1982), Rabaul (1994) and Parícutin, Mexico (1943), cannot be used to reconstruct the behaviour of the Pompeians, though they do give some indication of the range of possible behavioural responses to such a disaster.177

One can only speculate as to whether certain sections of the community were more predisposed to becoming victims in the AD 79 eruption. There is no conclusive archaeological evidence to suggest that particular groups chose to either remain or flee from Pompeii during the initial non-lethal period of the eruption. It is quite probable that the decision was arbitrarily made across all strata of the population. This view is supported by studies of modern disasters, which demonstrate that all levels of a community tend to be equally affected by this kind of event.178

If the effects of this eruption were egalitarian, it would imply that the Pompeian victims present a good reflection of theAD 79 population. This can be tested by examination of the skeletal evidence for particular biases, such as skewing of the sample to a specific age range, certain pathologies or one sex (see Chapters 6 and 7). It is not possible to test for class biases as the skeletal record does not usually provide reliable information about the social status of individuals from ancient populations (Chapter 1) but other population features, such as heterogeneity versus homogeneity, may be revealed.

Evidence for post-eruption interference at Pompeii

Another issue that is of relevance to the composition of the skeletal sample is whether there were post-eruption visits to the site. This also potentially challenges the concept of the ‘Pompeii Premise’. There has been considerable debate as to whether the site was completely sealed after the eruption as a ‘frozen moment’ or if it were possible for people to return to Pompeii to collect valuables.179 This activity could have been dangerous as excavation has been said to release pockets of poisonous gas, known as mofeta, that were trapped in the volcanic deposit during the course of the eruption.180 Skeletons of individuals who perished in this way, either in the period after the eruption or in the eighteenth century, when it was difficult to control unauthorized excavation, could present a source of bias to the sample. The traditional view is that Pompeii, unlike Herculaneum, which was sealed in a solid deposit, was visited shortly after the eruption by both looters and residents who wished to salvage what remained of their belongings. This notion was first proposed in the 1760s by Winckelmann and has since received wide support.181

The possibility of such an occurrence is contingent on the fact that it was possible to identify at least part of the site after the volcanic event. It has often been claimed that the upper portions of walls were visible.182 Certain scholars, however, have argued that it would not have been likely that residents or looters could have easily re-located the site, let alone specific houses, after the eruption as volcanic deposits of tephra compact by about 50 per cent in the first two weeks after an eruption.183 It appears that knowledge of the exact location of Pompeii was lost some time after the eruption, though the collective memory of an ancient site in the region was commemorated by the name Civita for the general area.184

The lack of bronze statuary and much of the marble in the forum have been cited as archaeological evidence for post-eruption looting and salvage work.185 It should be noted, however, that the paucity of certain classes of evidence has been questioned. Large quantities of marble, for example, were actually found in the forum, though there were problems both with documentation and robbery at the time of excavation.186 It has been suggested that looting may not have been a major post-eruption activity, on the basis of information from contemporary eruptions, which revealed no escalation of the crime rate after volcanic disasters.187

Reports of mixed stratigraphy and the discovery of holes in walls by the excavators have often been invoked as evidence for people returning to the site in antiquity.188 Some of this can be explained in terms of undocumented eighteenth-century excavation.189 Finds, including ancient lamps that have been dated to periods after the AD 79 eruption190 and the skeletal remains with a lantern and pick that are now in room 19 of the Casa del Menandro, have also been used as evidence of post-eruption visits to the site.191 While the accuracy of the dates for the lamps cannot be questioned, the use of these skeletal finds as evidence of post-eruption intruders requires some comment. The skeletal group under discussion was not originally found either with a pick or in this context (see Chapter 1). Further, the skeletal evidence does not suggest looters. Three of the individuals in this group were identified as children equivalent in development to juveniles under the age of six in a modern European population.192 The three skeletons that were originally found in this room in association with the abovementioned implements were also reported to include juvenile remains, though they were not available for examination. In addition, three holes can be observed in the south and west walls of this room. These have also been interpreted as evidence of looting, though it is apparent that they were cut from inside the room, probably by the three victims in an attempt to escape after the normal exits were blocked by the build-up of ash and lapilli.193 Similar arguments have been used to explain the presence of holes in the walls of other houses.194

Other skeletal finds from the upper strata of Pompeii, especially the northwest quarter, have also been interpreted as looters.195 Many of these were found with associated artefacts, such as coins or jewellery. Richardson considered that these individuals were clearly pillagers and not victims fleeing the eruption with their valuables, though he did not present any evidence to substantiate this claim.

These examples demonstrate the complexity associated with the interpretation of evidence for post-eruption visits to the site. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that Pompeii was visited for some period after the eruption. Along with the lamps mentioned above, post-eruption salvaging can be seen, for example, in the form of holes in the north and south walls of Room c in the Casa del Principe di Napoli, along with disarticulated skeletal remains which had apparently been disrupted during exploration some time after the death and decomposition of the victims.196 While one cannot discount the possibility of post-eruption skeletons in the Pompeian collection, there are no known unequivocal discoveries of ancient skeletons that do not date to the initial destruction. Whatever the case, it is unlikely that the contamination rate would be significant.

In conclusion, the evidence is such that it probably will never be possible to determine exactly what happened in the final period of occupation in Pompeii. Similarly, precise details about the people who became victims, or were able to escape, is unlikely to be established. It is clear that the site of Pompeii is not simply a sealed deposit of a thriving town, stopped in its tracks by the AD 79 eruption. While the AD 62 earthquake did not result in complete abandonment of the site as evidenced by rebuilding projects, it is clear that some changes did occur as suggested by Seneca’s writings and other archaeological evidence. It is impossible to assess the degree of change or whether the nature of the population was altered, though it is likely that the population was dynamic in the last 17 years of Pompeii’s history.

It is apparent that the responses of individuals to events like the AD 62 earthquake and the AD 79 eruption are likely to have been varied and defy simplification into models. It is not possible to determine the percentage of the Pompeian population that is represented from the skeletal remains. The volcanological evidence suggests that a number of Pompeians, probably the majority, escaped from the walled section of the town. As has been revealed by the limited excavation of the area around Pompeii, a proportion of these people became victims during their attempted escape from the region.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!