The tragic eruption of Mount Vesuvius has captured the imagination of generations. On that summer morning in 79 AD, the volcano spewed lava, volcanic ash and molten rocks at around 1.5 million tons per second, at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour. The mixture buried the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum in southern Italy, freezing them in time for over 1000 years. Buildings, artefacts, art and bodies were submerged, perfectly preserving a slice of Roman life. Today, more than 2.6 million people visit Pompeii every year to see the well-preserved city. And, while much about the eruption and the city is still a mystery, we’ve got a few interesting facts about Pompeii up our sleeve that are bound to surprise you.
1. The eruption lasted for a whole day
Most historians hold that Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24 79 AD. The discovery of a letter from Pliny the Younger has enabled us to piece together what may have happened on that fateful day. Pliny was station at Misemum, serving as the commander of the Roman fleet. In his letter, he mentions a “cloud of unusual size and shape appearing” at around 12pm. Pompeii was likely hit at 6:45 am the following day. The eruption lasted for around 18 hours.
Incidentally, it occurred just one day after the festival of the Roman God of Fire, Volcan.
2. Pompeii was undiscovered for 1,500 years
The ruined city was then frozen in time until the late 16th century when it was discovered by architect Domenico Fonana. Neighbouring Herculaneum was discovered in 1709. However, excavation didn’t actually begin until 1748. The inscription identifying the site as Pompeii (Rei Publicae Pompeianorum) wasn’t discovered until 1963.
It’s also the longest continuously excavated site in the world.
3. There’s a lot of ancient graffiti…
… and some of it’s pretty bawdy! There are over 500 walls of graffiti across the ancient city that prove these Romans weren’t actually all that different to us. The oldest known graffiti at Pompeii is a classic – “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here”. Other ancient inscriptions seem to focus on love declarations like “I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world” and insults including “Epaphra, you are bald!”. Others are a little more peculiar, for example on the wall of the latrine, a happy fellow wrote” “I am Apollinaris. I am the doctor of the Emperor Titus. I have defecated very well here. It was on the wall of the latrine.”
There also appear to be adverts for Gladiator games and other political messages. Rebecca Benefiel is leading the charge on deciphering the notes, which are usually around the size of a post-it note.
4. Researchers cast the bodies
While over 2,000 people likely died in Pompeii, only 1,500 have been found to date and most of these were uncovered during the 19th-century. The layers of hardened pumice and ash preserved the bodies but left holes in the decaying corpses. Giuseppe Fiorelli, who took over the excavations in the mid-19th century, began casting the bodies to preserve them. He pioneered injecting plaster into the gaps to create plaster casts of each body.
This has proven invaluable to modern-day researchers who are now bringing to life the victims with advanced imaging technology and 16-layer CAT technology. One of the most surprising discoveries was the victim’s excellent teeth conditions, which researchers say suggests they had low sugar, high fibre diet. Researchers are also using contrasting dyes that mimic the appearance of muscles and skin to provide an even more fascinating insight into the ancient world.
5. The wind blew the wrong way
Incredibly, while Mount Vesuvius has always been an active volcano, if the wind had blown in a different direction then the ash from Vesuvius would have blown away from Pompeii. The wind usually blows in a southwesterly direction during summer in Pompeii. If this had been the case, the ash would have blown over the Bay of Naples. However, on this day, the wind blew in a northwesterly direction, causing the ash to blow directly onto Pompeii.
6. It’s erupted over 50 times
Geologists argue that the most famous Mount Vesuvius eruption was not the first. In fact, they claim that there were at least three eruptions before this in around 1800 B.C., during the Bronze Age. Since there hadn’t been another eruption for at least 1,800 years, it’s likely that residents didn’t actually know it was an active volcano.
We know about another particularly active period too. Between 1631 and the end of the nineteenth century, Mount Vesuvius erupted fifteen times. The worst eruption occurred in 1872, which Luigi Palmieri managed to capture in a sketch. The most recent eruption occurred in 1944. It destroyed the town of San Sebastiano, killing 26 people. A U.S. newsreel recorded the eruption and helped residents escape.
Today, Mount Vesuvius is a stratovolcano. Authorities are still constantly monitoring its activity. There’s an evacuation plan permanently in place, but no one knows when to expect the next eruption.
7. Pompeii was a popular holiday resort
Around 10,000 – 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, but it was also a popular holiday resort for Roman holidaymakers. Before the eruption, it was a reasonably wealthy city, thanks to its strategic location for trade by both sea and land. Professor William Abbott claims that: “At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations”. Lots of Romans would have kept holiday villas here.