Place: Pompeii and Herculaneum

This appendix looks to construct a basic historical understanding of the ancient cities of of Pompeii and Herculaneum. More acutely, this collection of historical, literary, and media materials strives to document the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 that wiped out the vast majority of a civilization. In order to do this, the appendix blends together documents from the ancient past, from the time Hemans was writing & publishing “The Image in Lava,” and representations of the place today.

Historical Context

Quick facts on the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum:

  • Prior to the explosion, the area around Pompeii and Herculaneum experienced a devastating earthquake. This earthquake occurred in AD 63
    • “The first sign of real danger, as far as the Romans were concerned, came in the form of a massive earthquake on 5 February AD 62 or AD 63” (Roberts 273)
  • The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is recorded to have happen approximately a decade and a half after the earthquake
    • “In AD 79 Mount Vesuvius broke its centuries-long silence with devastating results for the citied and their inhabitants” (Roberts 272)
    • “On the morning of August 24th, at last, a staggering, deafening crack, as if the earth had broken open into two, resounded from the volcano, while simultaneously the ground shook longer and more violently than on the previous days” (Brion 24)
  • “The number of dead in Pompeii during the eruption is estimated at about two thousand: a tenth of the population, in fact.” (Brion 31)
  • Surge temperature of the magma was approximately 400-450 C (Roberts 285)
  • Two different, yet equally devastating, results:
    • “In Herculaneum the first phrases of the eruption – minor eplosions, violent earthquakes and the rising up of the enormous ‘umbrella-pine’-shaped cloud – provoked disbelief, horror, and incomprehension at the sheer scale of what was happening, and the realization of its terrifying proximity. Herculaneum was only 7 km (4.5 miles) away from the volcano – half the distance of Pompeii – and so everything was closer and more threatening” (Roberts 284)
    • In Pompeii, “[P]umice and ash fell like snow from the looming volcanic cloud and accumulated throughout the city at a rate of 15 cm (6 in.) every hour” (Roberts 295)

The map below shows the relative destruction and reach of the volcanic explosion.


Fortunate for us as scholars of history and literature, we possess a written, eyewitness account of the eruption of Mount Vesuivus: “A young man named Pliny (the Younger), later a famous writer, was staying in his family home near Cape Misenum at the north of the Bay of Naples, about 30 km (19 miles) to the west of Vesuvius” (Roberts 279). To check out some of these fascinating letters, click here.

Literary Documents

This excerpt was taken from Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy (1853). Murray’s handbook was a medium for engagement and interpretation of historical spaces during the Victorian period (Beard 23). Murray’s entry on Pompeii and Herculaneum spans approximately 85 pages – making it a significant and noteworthy portion of the travel guide. In this entry, tourists would find travel itineraries, historic details, and information on the must see sites in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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New Media

In this hour-long documentary, scholar Mary Beard examines the historical sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum

This tour by the popular travel mogul, Rick Steeves, looks at the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum as they stand today