Weird History
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What It Was Like To Die At Pompeii

Updated September 23, 2021 198.8k views16 items

The Mount Vesuvius eruption on August 24-25, 79 CE, was a tragic, deadly disaster for the residents of Pompeii, a Roman city tucked inland from the Bay of Naples. The volcano destroyed the town and preserved it under layers of ash and rock. Unearthed centuries later, the site serves as a treasure trove of objects and information. Archaeologists and historians can explore the way of life in Pompeii before the destruction.

Pompeii's residents suffered for hours as Mount Vesuvius - like most volcanoes - erupted in several phases. The volcano first trembled and coughed up a cloud that rained pumice stones and hot ash on the city for hours. Eventually, a deadly flow of blisteringly hot volcanic detritus and gas surged down, enveloping the city.

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  • A Chorus Of Voices Cried Out In The Evening

    Chaos ensued as the volcano erupted and people realized the circumstances were more dire than they originally believed. As darkness descended across the city and the barrage of stones snowed down, people attempted to flee.

    One survivor's account noted how the evening became filled with voices crying out for loved ones. In their last hours, Pompeians desperately wanted to stay safe with friends and family.

  • Photo: József Molnár / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some People Put Pillows On Their Heads As Protection From Rocks And Burning Ash

    Vesuvius pelted Pompeii with rocks and hot ash late in the day on August 24. Though many opted to stay indoors, others braved the elements in an attempt to flee the city. Aware of the danger the volcanic debris posed, some left their homes and wore pillows tied to their heads. They intended for the soft pillow to cushion any blow to the head from falling stones.

    Historians still don't know whether this protective gear proved effective.

  • Photo: Johan Christian Dahl / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Breathing In Volcanic Gas Was Painful

    As Vesuvius erupted, it discharged noxious gas into the air, making it difficult for people to breathe. In the first, relatively weak pyroclastic flow, the gas was cooler, but breathing it in was still incredibly painful.

    And this didn't only affect Pompeii. People around the rest of the Bay of Naples struggled to breathe the toxic air. Even in Misenum - a city about a dozen miles from Pompeii - the air made people choke and cough.

  • Photo: Die Gartenlaube / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some People Trying To Escape Pompeii's Sister City Became Trapped On The Beach

    Pompeii was not the only city to face destruction when Vesuvius erupted. Physically closer to the volcano, the town of Herculaneum likely endured destruction as well. When it became clear that trouble was on the horizon, some residents fled to the beach, hoping to get into boats and safely escape across the Bay of Naples.

    The lack of sufficient light and "floating banks of pumice" near the shoreline meant boats could neither come nor go. Instead, the people waited for hours in boathouses before the pyroclastic flow killed them.