Destruction of Pompeii Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The destruction of Pompeii through the eruption of Mount Vesuvius annihilated thousands of Pompeians but preserved the remains of this former great Roman city for discovery in later archaeological excavations.

Summary of Event

The destruction of Pompeii and two other cities as a result of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 c.e. has provided a rich archaeological treasure for excavators of the past two centuries. Pompeii was originally part of a large coastal area founded by the Greeks (c. 650 b.c.e.) called Neapolis (Naples) or “the New City,” and it became a prosperous harbor town along the Sarnus (Sarno) River. The Samnites controlled the city after 420 b.c.e. until it fell to Rome in 290 b.c.e. Pompeii became a more independent colony after 91 b.c.e. and a thriving center of oil and wine production, as well as a strong exporter of fish sauce, fruit, and volcanic stone or tufa. However, the city’s significance should not be overestimated, for it had a population of only twenty thousand and an importance that was solely regional. Its pleasant climate and proximity to the sea, however, made it a fashionable resort for wealthy Romans, some of whom, including the orator Cicero, maintained homes there. Pliny the Elder Pliny the Younger

During the reign of Emperor Nero on February 5, 62 c.e., a severe earthquake rocked and badly damaged towns circling Mount Vesuvius, especially Pompeii and its forum area and temples. The great reservoir near Porta Vesuvius gave way, unleashing floodwaters throughout the city, and huge chasms opened in the fields, with reports of people and flocks of sheep being swallowed.

Along with the neighboring cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae, the city came to an abrupt end on August 24 in the year 79, when the volcano Vesuvius erupted in full fury. Located some 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of Pompeii across the southern end of the Bay of Naples, the volcano, aided by strong winds, rained down tons of fiery ashes and pumice on the three helpless cities. First, a mass of lava pebbles (lapilli) and boulders shot thousands of feet into the sky and crashed to the surface, adding about 8 to 9 feet (about 2.5 meters) of debris on the ground. Then, a cloud of pumice covered the terrain of the city up to 6 to 8 feet (nearly 2 to 2.5 meters) in height. A new wave of earthquakes, caused by the collapse of the sides of the volcanic cone, contributed to an explosion of gaseous pumice, dust, ash, and cinders. This material eventually turned downward, adding another 7 feet (a little over 2 meters) to the ash-covered city—not to mention the addition of various lethal gases as well.

Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness, describes the event graphically. About 7:00 a.m., Pliny relates, a dark cloud shaped like a pine tree appeared over the summit of Mount Vesuvius. The volcano emitted “flashes of fire as vivid as lightning” and produced “darkness more profound than night.” A thick vapor enveloped the entire area. Although all three cities were destroyed, Herculaneum appears to have received the full force of the eruption, being engulfed in a flood of volcanic waste that solidified into a level mass between 50 and 70 feet (15 and 21 meters) thick. Fortunately, the Roman fleet from Misenum commanded by Pliny the Elder, uncle of Pliny the Younger, was able to evacuate some of the inhabitants of the city. Nevertheless, the loss of life was great; by the 1990’s, archaeologists had removed some two thousand bodies. Tragically, attempts to escape by sea were thwarted because of fiery stones, winds, and waves that made embarkation impossible; the burning, flowing mud and ashes also prevented ships from making any landings. Unfortunately, Pliny the Elder was overcome by the deadly fumes and died at a point near Herculaneum (west of the volcano). Indeed, the main cause of death was not incineration but asphyxiation caused by carbon monoxide or sulfur dioxide.

The submerged cities were not rebuilt. A small village did for a time occupy the site of Pompeii, but it was deserted after another eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 472 c.e. Subsequent eruptions of the volcano so changed the coastline so that by the time exploration of the region was undertaken in the mid-eighteenth century, the exact site of Pompeii and the other two cities was uncertain.

Excavation actually began in 1748, when a peasant digging a well made some interesting finds that he reported to the authorities. King Charles IV of Naples became interested in the work, and in 1755, the amphitheater and other public buildings were uncovered. During the following fifty years, little systematic excavation took place, although miscellaneous rare objects were found from time to time. Under Joachim Murat, appointed king of Naples by Napoleon, archaeologists excavated some houses and streets, but only later in the mid-nineteenth century under Giuseppe Fiorelli, professor of archaeology at the University of Naples, were extensive excavations undertaken. He wanted to maintain the historical authenticity of the site by preserving objects found on location. His great contribution to Western civilization was his invention of a way to recapture the forms, or appearances, of people and animals caught in the horror of the destruction of Pompeii. Ashes preserved the exteriors of dead bodies after decomposition, so to reveal the shape of the body, he inserted inserting a tube into hollow areas where bones no longer existed and injected a special liquid plaster that, when hardened, would assume the shape of the original body. Details of Pompeian clothes, hair texture, feet imprints, and facial expressions are amazingly preserved.

Archaeologists created plaster casts of two victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

(Library of Congress)

The city was shaped like an irregular oval, the length being on an east-west axis. The 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) wall that surrounded the town had eight gates at which sentry boxes were located. Magnificently preserved streets and homes have been unearthed, the latter containing numerous utensils, jewelry, doctors’ and tradesmen’s tools, lamps, and mirrors in addition to beautifully painted walls displaying frescoes that reflect various themes of Roman life. Some of the larger Pompeian homes or villas date from the second century, while the style of wall paintings in others indicate that they were built during the Augustan period. The most pretentious villas were located 2 miles (about 3 kilometers) outside Pompeii at Boscoreale. In one villa there, besides artifacts of the traditional type, numerous wine storage jars were found that could accommodate an annual production of 20,000 gallons (76,000 liters). The income from the sale of so much wine is clearly reflected in the luxurious appointments of the estate.


Excavations at Pompeii, besides broadening knowledge about the daily life and routine of all ranks of Roman people, has had other unexpected repercussions. In the eighteenth century, they reinforced the neoclassical traditions popular during the Enlightenment. In France, the discoveries influenced the so-called Imperial style of Louis XV, while in England they gave birth to the so-called Adam period of architecture and decorative art during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ciarallo, Annamaria. Gardens of Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. A study of the gardens and of the plants depicted in Pompeii artwork. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ciarallo, Annamaria, and Ernesto De Carolis, eds. Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town. Milano: Electa, 1999. A catalog published in conjunction with the exhibitions at the Museo Archaeologico Nazioale di Napoli and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1999 and 2000. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Ambrosio, Antonio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. An illustrated analysis of the woman of Pompeii, including their jewelry and their social lives. Glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Carolis, Ernesto. Gods and Heroes in Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. Focuses on the depiction of gods and heroes in the art of Pompeii, including its murals. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Franciscis, Alfonso. Pompeii: Monuments Past and Present. Roma: Vision, 1995. A pictorial work examining the structures found at Pompeii. Contains transparent leaves showing artists’ reconstructions of original buildings. Color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Descourdres, Jean-Paul, et al. Pompeii Revisited: The Life and Death of a Roman Town. Sydney: Meditarch, 1994. This publication accompanied an exhibition on Pompeii at the Australian Museum in 1994. Sixteen pages of color plates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. An analysis of the architecture, material culture, and social life of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zanker, Paul. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Revealing Antiquity 11. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. A study of the political structure and social life of Pompeii. Bibliography and index.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Pliny the Elder. Pompeii, destruction of

Categories: History