Ancient and primary sources on Pompeii


Source 1

Contextual statement:

A Roman aristocrat writes to his friend and describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August AD 79.

My dear Tacitus, 

You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you [record it in your Histories]. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him… 


He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August [sc. in AD 79], when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. 


He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon. The cloud was rising from a mountain – at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.’ I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand. 


He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going along, but I preferred to study – he himself happened to have set me a writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from Tascius’ wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger.  Her villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She begged him to get her away. 

He changed his plans. The expedition that started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud, dictating what he saw. 


Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore. He paused for a moment wondering whether to turn back as the helmsman urged him. ‘Fortune helps the brave,’ he said, ‘Head for Pomponianus.’ 


At Stabiae, on the other side of the bay formed by the gradually curving shore, Pomponianus had loaded up his ships even before the danger arrived, though it was visible and indeed extremely close, once it intensified. He planned to put out as soon as the contrary wind let up. That very wind carried my uncle right in, and he embraced the frightened man and gave him comfort and courage. 


… The buildings were being rocked by a series of strong tremors, and appeared to have come loose from their foundations and to be sliding this way and that. Outside, however, there was danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were. Weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle’s case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least. 


They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and uncooperative as before. Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came a smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. 


Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again two days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead… 

Bibliographical reference:

Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, VI, 16.


Copyright: Public Domain.

Source 2

Contextual statement:

An ancient Roman historian provides an account of the destruction of Pompeii.

In Campania some frightening and astonishing events occurred. A great fire suddenly flared up at the very end of the summer. Mount Vesuvius, which stands near the sea below Naples, has in it inexhaustible fountains of fire. Once it had a symmetrical cone, and the fire leapt up from the centre. The burning was confined to that area, and even now the outer parts of the mountain are untouched by fire. As a result, since the outer portions are not burned, while the centre is continually growing brittle and turning to ash, the heights around the centre are as high as ever, but the whole fiery portion of the mountain has been consumed over time, and has settled into a hollow. 


Thus the entire mountain resembles an amphitheatre (if we may compare great things to small). Its heights support both trees and vines in abundance, but the crater is given over to the fire and sends up smoke by day and flame by night. In fact, it gives the impression that a great deal of all kinds of incense is being burned inside. This is the normal state of affairs, though with variations of degree. 


Often the mountain throws up ashes, as well, whenever there is extensive settling in the interior, and even discharges stones with a violent blast of air. It also rumbles and roars, as its vents are not obstructed but are open and free. 


Such is Vesuvius, and these phenomena occur there year in year out. But all the occurrences that had taken place there in the past, however impressive, because unusual, they may have seemed to observers, nevertheless would be reckoned trivial in comparison with what now happened, even if they had all happened simultaneously. What happened was this. 



Numbers of huge men appeared, but bigger than any human, more like the Giants in paintings. They were seen on the mountain, in the surrounding countryside, and in the cities, wandering over the earth day and night, and also journeying through the air. Then came a terrible dryness, and sudden violent earthquakes, so that the whole plain seethed and the heights leaped into the air. There were frequent rumblings, some underground, sounding like thunder, others on the surface, making a bellowing sound. The sea joined in the roar, and the sky added its peal. Then suddenly a dreadful crash was heard, as if mountains were collapsing in on themselves. First huge stones flew up as high as the mountain top, then came a great quantity of fire and endless smoke, so that the air was darkened and the sun entirely hidden, as if eclipsed. Thus day turned into night and darkness came out of the light. Some thought that the Giants were rising again in revolt (for many of their forms could still be discerned in the smoke, and a sound as of trumpets was heard), others believed that the whole universe was being resolved into chaos or fire. People fled, some from their houses into the streets, others from outside indoors, some from the sea to the land, others from the land to the sea. In their panic people regarded any place where they were not, as safer than where they were. 


All the while an inconceivable quantity of ash was being blown out; it covered both sea and land and filled all the air. Wherever it went it did a great deal of damage, especially to men and farms and sheep, and it destroyed all fish and bird life. Furthermore, it buried two entire cities, 


Herculaneum and Pompeii; in the latter the people were seated in the theatre. 


So much ash was there that some of it reached Africa and Syria and Egypt. It also appeared in Rome, filling the air overhead and darkening the sun. In Rome the fear lasted for many days, as people did not know what had happened and could not explain it. In fact, they too thought that the world was being turned upside down, that the sun was disappearing into the earth and the earth being lifted up into the sky. The ash did the Romans no great harm at the time, though later it brought them a terrible pestilence. 

Bibliographical reference:

Cassius Dio, History of Rome, LXIII.21–23.


Copyright: Public Domain.