The Survivors of Mount Vesuvius

Steven L. Tuck finds evidence of those who lived through the eruption at Pompeii and Herculaneum

Scholars have long debated whether there were many survivors of the volcanic eruption in Pompeii and Herculaneum, or if—as so many skeletons seem to indicate—the residents all perished. The discussions were often held without either side presenting evidence. Thanks to his painstaking research, Steven L. Tuck provides the previously elusive evidence.

For a disaster that happened in 79 C.E., the victims of Mount Vesuvius have been in the news a fair amount lately. Especially in Herculaneum, where the volcano’s eruption caused a pyroclastic flow, surging ash, gas, and rock.

Mt. Vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius
Photo: Wayne Perry/Alamy stock photo

As reported in the New York Times, two recent studies have examined how people died in Herculaneum. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine asserts the intense heat from the flow converted the brain of one victim to glass—a process called vitrification. Antiquity journal of Cambridge shares research revealing that many of the people killed at the seaside were protected from vaporization by the stone structure of the boathouses where they hid. Instead they suffocated or asphyxiated, suffering a more excruciating death. Fox News Science also reports on the question of whether researchers have found the skull of Pliny the Elder, who is known to have perished in Herculaneum.

Before these studies were published, Steven L. Tuck’s article, “Rescuing and Recovering Vesuvius’s Survivors” (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2020) focused on those who did not die. He wanted to answer “whether anyone escaped Pompeii and Herculaneum. If so, where did they resettle, and did the Roman government matter in the aftermath of the disaster?”

By tracing known proper names from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and then finding where those names appeared for the first time in nearby cities after the Mount Vesuvius’s eruption, he has been able to find survivors. Not only the wealthy, but also common families, did survive and relocate. In Naples, and elsewhere, there are signs of the Roman government’s response, providing an area where Herculaneum refugees could live and thrive.

Inscription from Naples recording Emperor Titus's work after Mt. Vesuvius erupted

In this inscription from Naples, Emperor Titus (r. 79–8 1 C.E.) records his work in that community after the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 C.E.
Photo: Ann Pizzorusso

As Steven L. Tuck concludes, “Studies like there are important because they provide new insights into survival rates from natural disasters in the Roman world and inform us about the role of the imperial government in the aftermath of such major events.”

To read more about the study, and the survivors of Mount Vesuvius that have been traced, read the article “Rescuing and Recovering Vesuvius’s Survivors” by Steven L. Tuck in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article “Rescuing and Recovering Vesuvius’s Survivors” by Steven L. Tuck, in the January/February 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge? The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed the opulent vacation destinations of Roman elites in August 79 C.E.—almost exactly nine years after Roman troops destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Did this seem like more than mere coincidence to the ancients?

Jesus Was a Refugee Scholar Joan E. Taylor says that it’s worth remembering that Jesus’ earliest years were, according to the Gospel of Matthew, spent as a refugee in a foreign land.

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