Pompeii and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A Timeline

In 79 CE, an eruption by Mount Vesuvius erased the city of Pompeii from the map, but it also preserved the people of the city and their way of life.

Pompeii and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A Timeline
Remains of Pompeii, with Mount Vesuvius in the background mantaphoto/iStock

700 BCE - the city of Pompeii, 14 miles (23 km) southeast of Naples is settled by the Etruscans. Pompeii is just 6 miles (10 km) from the slumbering volcano, Mount Vesuvius.

62 CE - an earthquake originating at Vesuvius causes significant damage to both Pompeii and its neighboring city Herculaneum.

79 CE - Pompeii is home to many wealthy Romans, who build grand villas filled with lavish decorations and works of art. Airflow across the Mediterranean brings needed moisture to the area, and Pompeiians are able to farm barley, wheat, millet, grapes, olives, walnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, chickpeas, beans, figs, pears, onions, garlic, peaches, and dates. The rich, volcanic soil also helps locals produce an abundance of excellent wine, which is exported to the rest of Italy.

Pompeii grape harvest
Pompeii grape harvest, Source: (screengrab) CBC Gem

In Pompeii, the wine was the beverage of choice even for children, and "Happy Hour" lasted all day. Pompeiian wine was mixed with herbs and honey, and at the bar of Amarantus, dice were found, showing that games of chance were popular.

Pompeii and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A Timeline
Frescoed walls of a villa in Pompeii, Source: Cezary Wojtkowski/iStock

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Pompeii is home to 11,000 people and is surrounded by walls 2 miles (3 km) in circumference that enclose an area of around 163 acres (66 hectares). Seven gates allow entrance into the city.

Map of Pompeii
Map of Pompeii, Source: cmglee, MaxViol/Wikimedia Commons

The Forum is the center of the city's municipal, economic and religious life. Just to the east of the Forum is the Macellum, a large public market. The city has a palaestra, or a sports ground, two theaters, an amphitheater, a gymnasium with a natatorium, or a swimming pool, temples dedicated to deities, and at least four public baths.

Terentius Neo and his wife
Terentius Neo and his wife, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The city also has the Pistrinum, a mill, the Thermopolium, which is a fast food place that serves both food and beverages, and multiple cauponae, or cafes, which have a less than savory reputation.

Via dell’Abbondanza
Via dell’Abbondanza, Source: Mentnafunangann/Wikimedia Commons

At the Lupanar, prostitutes ply their trade, and on the outskirts of the city is a large hospitium, or hotel. The Serino Aqueduct, which also serves other towns on the Bay of Naples, brings water to the public baths, to over 25 street fountains, and to private homes and businesses.

August 24, 79 CE

8:00 a.m. - a cloud of gas and ash appears above Mount Vesuvius. For the last four days, small earthquakes have been felt in Pompeii.

12:00 p.m. - Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who is 17-years-old and visiting along with his mother, his uncle, Pliny the Elder, at Misenum. Located across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii, Misenum is 18 miles (29 km) southwest of Vesuvius.

Map of the Bay of Naples
Map of the Bay of Naples, Source: Marcia Wendorf

1:00 p.m. - a violent eruption spews ash high into the sky, and ash and white pumice begin to fall on Pompeii at a rate of 4-6 inches/hr (10-15 cm/hour). The pumice heats the roof tiles on houses to between 250° and 280° F (120-140° C). 

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Pliny the Elder is an Admiral of the Roman fleet, and when word reaches him of the volcano's eruption, he sails the fleet stationed at Misenum towards Stabiae in an attempt to rescue survivors. Pliny the Younger writes that his mother has noticed "a cloud of unusual size and shape" appearing over Mt. Vesuvius.

5:00 p.m. - ash has blocked out the sunset, and the first buildings in Pompeii begin to collapse under the weight of the ash and pumice. Fist-sized volcanic rocks called lithics begin to pummel Pompeii, and many of the residents flee towards the harbor. The bombardment of ash, pumice, and lithics continues for 18 hours.

6:45 p.m. - Pliny the Elder's fleet encounters showers of hot cinders and a hail of pumice. His helmsman advises him to turn back, but Pliny states: "Fortune favors the brave," and the fleet lands at Stabiae, which is 2.8 miles (4.5 km) from Pompeii.

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August 25, 79 CE

1:00 a.m. - the eruption cloud, which is now 20 miles (32 km) high, collapses and sends pyroclastic surges #1 and #2 over the cities surrounding the volcano. A pyroclastic surge is a mixture of gas and rock fragments. The temperature of the first surge is estimated at 360–430° F (180–220° C), while the temperature of the second surge is estimated at 430-500° F (220-260° C).

The surges heat even windowless, interior rooms in Pompeii to at least 212° F (100° C), or the boiling point of water. By now, the city of Herculaneum and its population no longer exist.

6:30 a.m. - pyroclastic surge #3 hits Pompeii with a temperature in excess of 480° F (250° C). This is known because it melts the lead-tin silverware used by the residents. Anyone still left alive is instantly killed by heat shock.

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6:45 a.m. - conditions at Stabiae begin to deteriorate, and after surviving the night there, Pliny the Elder and his crew attempt to flee inland, but Pliny begins to cough and soon he collapses, then dies.

Death of Pliny the Elder
Death of Pliny the Elder, Source: University of Chicago

Back at Misenum, Pliny the Younger and his mother have fled inland, and he lives to write the only known account of the disaster in letters to his friend, the historian Tacitus.

Pliny the Younger wrote: "... on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.

"My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulfur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed."

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7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m. - the 4th, 5th, and 6th pyroclastic surges cover Pompeii with 2 feet (6 m) of debris and ash. A 2010 study by Italian Volcanologist Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo concluded that temperatures during the fourth pyroclastic surge reached 572° F (300° C).

The eruption cloud above Vesuvius is now 21 miles (33 km) high. Pliny the Younger wrote: "Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night... it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night."

Post eruption

79 CE - Pompeii is now buried under 82 feet (25 m) of volcanic ash and pumice. Despite robbers making off with statues from the Forum and marble from walls, the city will be almost entirely forgotten.

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1592 - workers digging a channel to divert water from the River Sarno hit ancient walls covered with frescoes and inscriptions, but they cover them back over.

1738 - workmen digging a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, rediscover Herculaneum.

1748 - Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre makes the first attempt to locate Pompeii. On August 20, 1763, an inscription [...] Rei Publicae Pompeianorum [...] is found and the city is identified as Pompeii.

1863 - the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli discovers voids in the ash layer that contain human remains. Fiorelli realizes that these voids were created by decomposed human bodies and that he can inject plaster into the voids to create forms of Pompeii's residents during their final moments of life. Fiorelli's technique is still being used today, the only difference is using clear resin instead of plaster.

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Pompeii and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A Timeline
People of Pompeii, Source: sestovic/iStock

Fiorelli also devises a system whereby Pompeii is divided into nine areas (regiones), and blocks (insulae). He then numbered the houses (domus), so that three numbers can describe any location within Pompeii.

Pompeii and the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A Timeline
Seated man, Source: Flory/iStock

1943 - Allied bombing raids during World War II, damage or destroy parts of Pompeii.

1951 - Italian archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri uncovers areas to the south of the Via dell’Abbondanza, one of the main streets of Pompeii. These excavations uncover bakeries with mills, machines for kneading bread and ovens, some of which still contain loaves of bread.

Fulleries, where wool was processed are uncovered, as are the shops of sculptors, toolmakers, gem cutters, lamp makers, and factories for making that staple of Roman food garum.

Inscriptions on walls are uncovered that announce gladiatorial combats, coming elections, and notices of market days. Wax tablets are uncovered that include the accounts of the banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus and notes between various lovers.

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1971 - the rock band Pink Floyd films a live concert entitled Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii without an audience at Pompeii's amphitheater.

1997 - Pompeii is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is host to 2.5 million visitors annually.

2003 - 1,044 casts have been made from the impressions of bodies in the ash deposits of Pompeii. 38% of the bodies are found within the ash deposits inside of buildings, and 62% are found within deposits from the pyroclastic surges.

Author Thomas Harris publishes his novel Pompeii, which is about a Roman engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who arrives in Pompeii to fix problems with the water system that are unknowingly being caused by the run-up to the eruption. Falling in love with a local woman, they both take refuge in the underground cistern and are the only two to survive the eruption.

2014 - Paul W.S. Anderson directs the movie Pompeii which stars Game of Thrones' Kit Harrington, The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss, and Chernobyl's Jared Harris.

2016 - 45 years after Pink Floyd's recording, the band's guitarist, David Gilmour, performs a live concert in Pompeii's amphitheater. This is the first time an audience has attended a performance there since the eruption in 79 CE.

2020 - excavation at Pompeii is being done by Eric Poehler at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with the Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project.

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