How many people survived Pompeii

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Pompeii - The fall of a Roman city

Pompeii, the thriving city on the Gulf of Naples, died in a dramatic volcanic catastrophe that mankind rarely experienced.
For modern scientists, however, the tragedy is a stroke of luck, because both the life and death of the city have been preserved in a snapshot, buried under a twelve-meter-thick layer of ash and pumice.
It is thanks to modern research results and the surviving letters of an eyewitness that today, almost 2000 years after the devastating eruption of Vesuvius, we can reconstruct the course of the catastrophe.


The rise of Pompeii

Pompeii was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC. A small elevation on an old lava flow from Vesuvius offered a good view of the terrain and thus protection from hostile Etruscans. A small port was built at the mouth of the Sarno River, where goods from the surrounding area were shipped. Wine and olive trees grew on the fertile slopes of the volcano, and grain was grown further inland. Pompeii developed into a prosperous trading city within a few centuries. 290 BC The city was occupied by the Romans. Since then, wealthy citizens have fled the sultry narrowness of Rome to Pompeii every summer. The fortified city grew. Three thermal baths were built and lead water pipes were laid. Pompeii had a theater, an odeon and an arena. In addition to trade, art and culture flourished. The Romans also favored carnal pleasure: 13 public brothels were discovered during the excavations. In biconic mills made of lava stone, grain was ground that was baked into bread in the 31 bakeries. In the cookshops - the Thermopolien - the citizens ate a quick meal while standing. In AD 62, large parts of Pompeii were destroyed by an earthquake. The money from Rome flowed sparingly and so the reconstruction dragged on for years. When Vesuvius sealed the final exit of the city in AD 79, not all of the damage caused by the quake had been repaired when the final end of the city was sealed.

Pictures from Pompeii

View over Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

Wall fresco in the Villa Mysteria

Bakery with flour mills

Thermopolies were takeaways in ancient times

Mosaic of the Battle of Hadrian


The fall of Pompeii

It was a mild summer morning on that August 24, 79 when the ground in Pompeii swayed again. The thunder of a huge explosion suddenly tore the citizens out of their everyday lives. Terrified, they looked in the direction of Vesuvius, from which the terrible noise was emanating, and they saw that the mountain had blown away its top. In its place there was a crater from which pillars of fire struck. A gray, pine-shaped cloud of dust and debris darkened the sky in minutes, turning day into night. The disturbed people feared the wrath of the gods. Torches were lit, prayers were said, but it didn't help: half an hour later, volcanic ashes, dust, lapilli and frothy pieces of pumice pelted down Pompeii.

An inferno raged on the summit of Vesuvius, ten kilometers away. Under high pressure, the volcano tirelessly spewed out fragmented lava. Glowing chunks and debris from old rock rumbled down to the valley and burned the vegetation on the volcanic slope. The eruption cloud had meanwhile reached the stratosphere. The city was unlucky that the wind was blowing from the direction of Vesuvius and driving the cloud towards it. Stones hailed from the cloud. The debris in Pompeii was growing at a rate of eight inches per hour. The people panicked, many were gathering belongings and trying to flee. Others took shelter in their homes. However, the open construction of the atrium houses did not offer this adequately. Poisonous gases penetrated the rooms, the roofs groaned under their stone load. Many a roof structure gave way in the afternoon and collapsed.

The first phase of the eruption lasted twelve hours. Around midnight, the bombardment from volcanic extraction products subsided. The residents of Pompeii believed they had survived the worst, but the respite was short-lived.

As the pressure from the crater eased, the rising eruption cloud collapsed, generating pyroclastic currents. The first glowing clouds did not reach Pompeii, but destroyed the neighboring city of Herculaneum. This was much closer to Vesuvius than Pompeii, but until then it had largely been spared the eruption. People died an agonizing death in the pyroclastic currents. Even those who found shelter in a house were burned in the 800 degree hot gases, on which a stream of ash and rocks moved, crushing everything that the gases had not destroyed.

In the early hours of the morning of August 25, four pyroclastic rivers reached Pompeii, killing anyone who was still alive in the city. Pompeii was now completely buried under tephra. During the day there were two more pyroclastic flows that ended up covering the former urban area. Pompeii was now buried under a twelve-meter shroud. In Herculaneum, which was only six kilometers from the crater, the volcanic deposits piled up to 20 meters. The sunken cities were forgotten. If the technical possibilities had already existed back then as today, the fall of Pompeii and Herculaneum would probably not have been prevented, but the cities would have been evacuated and the events would have been documented in detail. In addition to the ruins, only a few written eyewitness reports testify to the natural disaster.

The excavations of Pompeii

The sunken cities were legends from a bygone era when some pieces of marble and coins were accidentally found on their territory towards the end of the 16th century. Gradually there were robbery excavations after the ancient treasures. It was looted and stolen. Many treasures ended up in the hands of dubious collectors during this time. Systematic excavations did not begin until the 18th century - modern archeology was born. To date, a good four fifths of the old city area has been exposed. More than 2000 corpses were found, mostly as cavities in the lava rock that were filled with plaster of paris. However, the scientists assume a total of more than 16,000 victims. This estimate also includes the people who died in the surrounding area. The population of Pompeii was around 20,000 at the time of the disaster.

The eruption in 79 was not the first major catastrophe to have struck Vesuvius. A good 1800 years earlier, the volcano had buried the huts of a Bronze Age settlement under ashes. Apart from these huts, archaeologists found the skeletons of two people whose footprints had been preserved in the ashes. It was probably a couple of farmers who had been on the run from the eruptions. The settlement was near the present-day Avellino, northeast of the volcano and much farther from it than Pompeii. At a distance of 35 kilometers, the layer of ash was 50 centimeters thick. Scientists discovered traces of repopulation after the eruption, but the attempt was apparently unsuccessful due to the environmental degradation. According to volcanologists, such a catastrophe could repeat itself in the near future. In contrast to that time, however, today there are not just a few thousand people in the Naples agglomeration, but millions. In the event of an eruption like the one that occurred in AD 79, 800,000 people would now be directly affected. Successful evacuation depends on the length of the warning time. Vesuvius is one of the best-observed volcanoes on earth, and the observatory on this mountain, which was established in 1841, was the first of its kind. Thus Italy can be considered the cradle of volcanology and modern archeology at the same time.

A lot has happened since the first observatory with its mechanical measuring instruments was built. Today Vesuvius is monitored with the most modern computer technology. Even a virtual walk through the risen Pompeii is possible.

Pompeii tomorrow

What does the future of Pompeii look like? The answer is: bad! The ravages of time are gnawing at the excavated ruins. Sun, wind, rain, pollution and the feet of countless tourists make the ancient walls to create. The ruins are defenseless. Walls and roofs collapse again and again, mostly after heavy rainfall: on November 6, 2010 a house of the gladiator school collapsed, a few days later a wall at the "house of the moralist" gave way. There is no money for better protection. Pompeii is visited annually by around 3 million tourists and at an entry price of 11 euros. Some of the money seeps away into the mafia-like structures of Italy.
Paradoxically, Pompeii was safe from further destruction as long as it was covered in pumice and ash. Some researchers are calling for the excavation to be buried again in order to preserve it for posterity. Of course, the politicians think little of this plan and have now announced that they will act: a large-scale restoration campaign is to begin in early summer 2012. Let's see if it is put into practice.
Private initiatives and committed scientists who are struggling for the survival of the ruins today provide bright spots. Among them are archaeologists, taxidermists and conservation specialists from Germany. Researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Fraunhofer Society and the ICCROM support this Pompeii Sustainable Preservation Project. They want to find out by 2023 how the World Heritage Site Pompeii can be saved from decay.

Pompeii in literature and media

The fall of a Roman city was a world-shattering event. The processing of the topic in literature, art and media is correspondingly diverse. The oldest documentation of the natural disaster is the letters from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus. As the only written eyewitness report, they offer a basis for many other works. Robert Etienne's book gives a remarkably complete picture of life and death in a Roman city.
Numerous directors tried to implement the theme. Most of the time, Pompeii and the volcanic eruption were reduced to a background story. The focus was on sweet love stories between slaves and masters, or muscular gladiators. The representations of the eruption were seldom correct. Even with lavishly produced TV documentaries, the makers allowed themselves to be carried away to mix two fundamentally different types of eruptions. Red-hot basalt lava and lava fountains are shamelessly (or unsuspectingly) cut together with gray ash eruptions. Lava bombs are like burning lumps of tar that pull a meteoric trail of smoke behind them. No, the makers of these Pompeii films never saw a volcanic eruption live themselves.
The exhibitions "Pompeji" and "Herculaneum", which have been and are presented in various museums in Germany and Austria in recent years, are more demanding.

Latest discoveries in Pompeii

Excavations in Region V have been unearthing astonishing things recently. The skeleton of a race horse and bridle was discovered. The mortal remains of a man who appears to have been slain by a stone block and an inscription that presumably requires a new date of the downfall of the city. Accordingly, the sinking could not have occurred until October 17, 79. Previous dates could have been caused by a translation error in the Middle Ages.

Pompeii update

  • December 18, 2018: New plans are being discussed to evacuate the residents of Pompeii to Sardinia by boat if Vesuvius should erupt. The reason for this discussion is the recent earthquake on Vesuvius.
  • 10/17/2018: The discovery of a new inscription suggests that the city's fall must be re-dated. Vesuvius erupted 2 months later than previously assumed. History books need to be rewritten.
  • May 25, 2018: In Pompeii, the skeleton of a man was discovered who was apparently killed by a large stone block. The head and torso are under the block.


  • Online since 2003. Last updated November 2018

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