The six open questions about the Vesuvius Eruption of 79 AD

As is well known, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was a catastrophic event that resulted in the destruction of several Roman cities, including Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is considered one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in human history, with estimates of around 16,000 people losing their lives.

Since then, scientists have tried to investigate what happened. But six questions remain.

Lets start at the beginning. It began on August 24, 79 AD, with a massive explosion that sent a plume of ash and pumice up to 20 miles into the air. This was followed by a series of pyroclastic flows, which are a mix of hot gas, ash, and volcanic debris that rushed down the sides of the volcano at high speed, destroying everything in their path.

Someone of importance saw the eruption from far and decided to act: Pliny, also later called Pliny the Elder.

Pliny was not only a Roman author and nature specialist, but also the commander of the Roman fleet. At the time, he was stationed across the Bay of Naples in Misenum, close to the villa of the emperor Titus, who had just followed his father Vespasian onto the throne some months before.

Pliny was interested in natural history and had a reputation as an expert on the subject. At first, he saw the eruption thus as an opportunity to study the phenomenon up close and record his observations. Then, however, he realized the danger the coastal population was in and led a fleet to its rescue in record time. It was around one o’clock when he gave the order to set sails and he reached the other side of the vast Gulf of Naples in a few hours only. Unfortunately, his rescue mission ran, however, into the open arms of disaster. As he and his crew approached the shore, they were met by a rain of ash and pumice, which made it almost impossible to land. Probably, only small boats could by that time still brave the harbor’s waters. The seabed had started rising (it rose in the end by 4 meters) and the bay started to fill with seething hot mud.

Pliny and his men were eventually forced to turn back, and he himself – elderly, overweight and suffering from a weak lung, succumbed to the poisonous gases in the early morning of the next day, in wait for a possibility to leave, in Stabbiae. His fleet was unable to sail back to Misenum to safety as the ancient Romans did not yet possess the knowledge and technology to sail against the wind that – to their misfortune – blew against the coast.

Despite his failed attempt to save the victims of the eruption, Pliny the Elder’s bravery and selflessness have made him a hero. His nephew’s account of the eruption, which was given 30 years later in a letter to the historian Tacitus and was based on hearsay, has provided posteriority with unique information about the disaster and its impact on the people who lived in the region. Yet, it only survived in 4, badly damaged medieval copies, full of discrepancies and ambiguities.

The Younger Pliny being shown by Pliny the Elder the eruption of the Vesuvio
The Younger Pliny being shown by Pliny the Elder the eruption of the Vesuvio, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann – the image is forgeting that Pliny the Younger was 18 years old already and Pliny the Elder fat and overweight.

Six Questions

Many questions remained open since then, and here are the six most important of them, that scientists still hotly debate:

  1. Which day did the fateful eruption happen? 24 August (as Pliny the Younger seems to write) or 24 October 79 AD?
  2. How was Pliny alerted of the danger to the coastal population, given that the whole disaster did only take 19 hours from start to end and no one managed to cross the Gulf due to the contrary winds? There was a letter, says Pliny’s nephew. But who carried that? A fast-rowing hero or pigeons that Pliny had stationed in Herculaneum?
  3. If it were pigeons (what is likely) – why did a military commander keep some of his pigeons in a luxurious coastal town?
  4. Who alerted Pliny the Elder of the danger of the eruption by the famous letter? A friend – named in some translations of Pliny the Younger’s letter ‘Rectina’ – or a military brigade stationed in Herculaneum in a place called Rectina?
  5. Why should there be a military brigade in the coastal town? Was this to protect an important person, may be even a member of the imperial family and if yes, who? (see the answer here)
  6. And finally: Did Pliny manage to safe some of the people from the coast or did he just travel by and give up?

The tragic mystery of the overturned boat

A boat that has been excavated and is now on display in Herculaneum. It might give an answer to the last of the questions.

The wreck was already discovered in 1982 during excavations in the ancient port of Herculaneum, which brought also some 300 skeletons to light inside nine of twelve forniculae, located in front of the shoreline. The forniculae were used as warehouses and shelters for boats. The presence of the masses of human remains therein indicate that people had assembled there, desperate for help from the sea or seeking to flee over it. These barrel-vaulted rooms were built as arches into the tufa of the ancient cliff and opened towards the beach and the ocean. They were the only protection of the people against the six waves of hot mud shooting over the precipice above them.

The remains of the boat, that were found in front of them, are believed to be those of a small military vessel. It is made of wood and measures approximately 8.5 meters in length and was found overturned.

Close to the boat lay a soldier of considerable height (about 1.80m), wearing a belt from which two short swords hung and carrying a rucksack and coins. His skeleton was probably that of a senior naval officer sent on the daring mission by Pliny to save the inhabitants. He also may have been the commander of the local military brigade. We will probably never know, which one of the two. Yet, the officer was most likely directing the panic-stricken evacuation of the beach as volcanic debris rained down. Archaeologists have discovered that a leather belt found on him was decorated with silver and gold lion and cherub, suggesting he was of senior rank. He also had a sword with an ivory hilt and a decorated dagger showing an oval shield, normally pertaining to praetorians. Next to his remains lay a collection of coins, including 12 silver denarii, indicating that he was more than just a low-ranking legionary and coinciding with the monthly salary of a praetorian.

The man had carpentry tools in his knapsack, which let scientists first presume, he might have been a faber navalis, the Latin term for officers on board Roman military ships who had specialized engineering and carpentry skills. That is however now doubted. What is sure is, that he gave his live to safe others. If he succeeded is unsure. All happened so fast and one can only imagine the panic and fright of that moment.

Close to the soldier a skeleton was found on 15 October 2021, with a bag containing various objects, such as a wooden box and pieces of cloth with gold trim. The skeleton, dubbed “the last fugitive”, might have been the last to try to get to safety, jump on a boat, make it to the larger fleet waiting in the open water.

He was a man of adult age, with a robust build, who, according to anthropological examinations, is assumed to have been between 40 and 45 years old. He was found prostrate yet turned towards the city. He certainly saw in a last glimpse and with absolute fear the huge cloud of ash and boiling gases coming, a moment before he was felled by the heat wave descending from the volcano at hundreds of kilometers per hour. Then his dead body floated into the billows along with the wood from the city’s buildings, where it was found.

Archaeologists and the forensic anthropologist believe that he was killed by the heat wave of the eruption, as the heavily blackened bones and skull and the heat-induced fractures seem to indicate. Alongside him and the soldier, thousands of wooden elements from the city’s buildings, fragments of marble decorations and cornices, and other materials that probably belonged to boats were also found, all swept into chaos by the immense pyroclastic flows.

During the excavation, archaeologists unearthed shrubs, roots of tall trees, large beams – up to 5 metres long -, fragments of cornices and panels belonging to false ceilings and the roofs of entire buildings, as well as wooden planks – including one more than 10 metres long – struts and other elements. All this paints a tragic story of immense suffering and pain. The two dead men and all those on this tragic beach met a horrible fate.

Most probably further excavations of what was once the shallow costal water directly off the beach may bring even more details of the fateful day to light. But it can be supposed that not many made it to safety, to the ships of Pliny and from there to a safe place.

History has painted one of its most tragic pictures on this beach. And Pliny’s fleet departed without having succeeded in its task.

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