We tend to imagine Pompeii as a city frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, inhabitants and all, but most Pompeiians actually survived the disaster. “The volcano’s molten rock, scorching debris and poisonous gases killed nearly 2,000 people” in Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, writes Live Science’s Laura Geggel. Of the 15,000 and 20,000 people in total who’d lived there, “most stayed along the southern Italian coast, resettling in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli,” according to the latest archaeological research. Vesuvius may have made refugees of them, but history has revealed that they made the right choice.
Pompeiians in particular, as the TED-Ed lesson above depicts it, faced three choices: “seek shelter, escape to the south on foot, or flee to the west by sea,” the latter made a viable proposition by the town’s location near the coast. The video’s animation (scripted by archaeology Gary Devore) dramatizes the fates of three siblings, Lucius, Marcus, and Fabia, on that fateful day in A.D. 79. “Fabia and her brothers discuss the recent tremors everyone’s been feeling,” says the narrator. “Lucius jokes that there’ll always be work for men who rebuild walls in Pompeii.” It is then that the long-rumbling Vesuvius emits a “deafening boom,” then spews “smoke, ash, and rock high into the air.”
Gathering up his own family from Herculaneum, Marcus goes seaward, but the waves are “brimming with volcanic matter, making it impossible for boats to navigate close enough to shore.” As subsequent phases of the eruption further devastate the towns, the luckless Lucius finds himself entombed in the room where he’d been awaiting his fiancée. Sheltering with her husband and daughters, and hearing the roof of her home “groan under the weight of volcanic debris,” Fabia alone makes the choice to join the stream of humanity walking southeast, away from the volcano. This sounds reasonable, although when Wired‘s Cody Cassidy asks University of Naples Federico II forensic anthropologist Pier Paolo Petrone to recommend the best course of action, the expert suggests fleeing to the north, toward Herculaneum and finally Naples — and more immediately, toward Vesuvius.
“The road between Pompeii and Naples was well maintained,” Petrone tells Cassidy, “and the written records of those who survived suggest that most of the successful escapees went north — while most of the bodies of the attempted escapees (who admittedly left far too late) have been found to the south.” Should you find yourself walking the thirteen miles between between Pompeii and Naples in the midst of a volcanic eruption, you should “avoid overexertion and take any opportunity to drink fresh water.” As Petrone writes, “only those who managed to understand from the beginning the gravity of the situation” — the Fabias, in other words — “escaped in time.” The likes of Mount Vesuvius would seem to rank low on the list of dangers facing humanity today, but nearly two millennia after Pompeii, it is, after all, still active.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.