Facts About Pompeii That Sound Made Up - But Aren’t

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Pompeii is an important archaeological site as well as a source of fascination. The ancient Roman city has been studied so thoroughly that many strange facts about Pompeii and its tragic end have emerged over the years. After the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, volcanic ash flooded the town and buried it in a matter of hours, along with many of its inhabitants. Pompeii's precise location was lost to time, although its memory wasn't. Throughout the medieval period and into the Renaissance, the city remained a tantalizing mystery. Once it was finally rediscovered in the 18th century, it offered something almost no other archaeological site could: a nearly intact Roman city, preserved just how it was, as a time capsule. 

The archaeological site called "Pompeii" actually includes three cities: Pompeii itself, nearby Herculaneum, and Stabiae to the southwest. All were essentially Roman resort towns, and all were affected by the volcanic eruption in different ways. Pompeii was hit first with a shower of pumice stones, injuring some inhabitants and driving the others inside. Herculaneum avoided the pumice showers, and advance warning allowed many residents to escape. Pompeii and Herculaneum were then flooded with "pyroclastic flows," which are fast-moving rivers of ash and gas. Meanwhile, Stabiae, farther away, was covered in about 16 feet of volcanic ash, but unlike the other two cities, human activity continued after the eruption. 

Both cities have yielded important archaeological finds, some of which are so unique they sound made up.

  • 1
    3,030 VOTES

    The Eruption Caused Heat Shock, Boiling Residents' Blood And Shattering Their Skulls In Seconds

    On the beach at Herculaneum, archaeologists have discovered the skeletons of at least 340 people. Some perished on the beach, and many more perished seeking shelter inside 12 stone boathouses, or fornici. Most likely, they took shelter from the falling ash, only for the pyroclastic flow to cover the entire boathouse. 

    The skeletal remains indicate that many of them succumbed to heat shock. The pyroclastic flow ranged from 570 to 930 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to cause bodily fluids to boil. Star-shaped fractures on some of the skulls suggest their brains exploded out of their heads. 

    It's possible some of these people actually succumbed to asphyxiation first, and the horrible heat shock only affected their cadavers afterward - a small mercy. 

    3,030 votes
  • 2
    2,612 VOTES

    Unlike Other Romans, Pompeiians Had Nearly Perfect Teeth

    Modern researchers have used sophisticated technology like high-res CAT scans to analyze the remains of about 100 Pompeiians. One of their most unexpected discoveries was that Pompeiians had nearly perfect teeth, with almost no decay, stains, or wear and tear. Some of this is due to their diet, which was full of fruits and vegetables and devoid of refined sugar. 

    But the bigger cause of tooth preservation was the volcano itself. One side effect of volcanic activity is that it produces fluoride, an ion of the element fluorine, and fluoride preserves teeth. The local water supply would have been laced with fluoride from Mount Vesuvius. 

    2,612 votes
  • 3
    1,836 VOTES

    Mount Vesuvius Erupted One Day After A Festival For Vulcan, Roman God Of Fire

    Pliny the Younger wrote the only known eyewitness account of Mount Vesuvius's eruption and the ensuing tragedy. He was present at the nearby town of Misenum, and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, perished in the aftermath. According to the younger Pliny, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius took place just one day after the people of Pompeii celebrated their annual Vulcanalia, a festival honoring their god of fire, volcanoes, and metalworking, Vulcan. 

    Devotees of Vulcan celebrated the Vulcanalia annually around August 23, during the hottest time of the year when a fire could easily wipe out that year's crops. They would light large bonfires and make sacrifices of small animals and fish, which they believed would appease the fire god and make him disinclined to burn their homes. 

    When Mount Vesuvius blew the next day and rained ash and fire down on top of them, religious Pompeiians may have interpreted this as a sign of their god's wrath.

    1,836 votes
  • The Books In Pompeii’s Library Are Still Intact
    Photo: Paz estrada / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
    1,791 VOTES

    The Books In Pompeii’s Library Are Still Intact

    Almost no original sources from any era of Rome's classical history have survived to the present. During the medieval period and the Renaissance, Roman texts like Livy's History of Rome or the poems of Catullus were mere copies of originals that no longer existed, whether they eroded in the damp Mediterranean climate or were burned by Goths. 

    But Herculaneum offered the first known ancient Roman library. Found in the villa of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a Roman politician and father-in-law to Julius Caesar, the library included over 1,800 intact scrolls. 

    "Intact" doesn't mean "legible," however. The volcanic eruption carbonized the scrolls, essentially turning them into blackened lumps of coal. Most of the Herculaneum papyri were left unopened until recently. Today, scientists use a particle accelerator that creates beams of high-energy X-ray radiation to scan the scrolls. Many of the texts are jumbled and difficult or incomplete, and the painstaking process continues. 

    1,791 votes
  • 5
    1,447 VOTES

    Pompeii Had A Brothel With An Illustrated Menu Of Its Services

    Pompeii had at least 25 brothels, and most of them were one-room setups. The most notable, and most elaborate, is called the lupanar, or Latin for "brothel." 

    The Lupanar of Pompeii is a two-story building (unusual for this time) with 10 separate rooms and carved stone beds, which probably held wooden pallets. The walls also display several frescoes that indicate what the building was used for. Archaeologists think these could have advertised the services offered, served as an instruction manual, or both. Graffiti in the Lupanar indicates that both male and female workers plied their trades there. The graffiti also included various messages that were too R-rated to include here. 

    According to one version of the story of Domenico Fontana's discovery of the ruins, the 16th century architect stumbled on the Lupanar's frescoes and thought they were too salacious for public viewing. So he reburied the ruins and delayed their excavation by more than a century.

    1,447 votes
  • Most Pompeiians Actually Escaped The Eruption
    Photo: Karl Bryullov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    1,161 VOTES

    Most Pompeiians Actually Escaped The Eruption

    It's unknown how many people passed from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but it's estimated to be around 2,000. That's a fraction of the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 total inhabitants of Pompeii, and 5,000 residents of Herculaneum.  

    Most locals made it out alive, and archaeological evidence indicates what happened to some of them. Tombstone inscriptions and funerary goods show that Pompeii natives resettled in neighboring communities like Ostia, Cumae, Naples, and Puteoli. The historical record also shows that the Roman Emperor Titus helped fund resettlement of Pompeii and Herculaneum's refugees, or at least took credit for it. 

    1,161 votes