How the Survivors of Pompeii Escaped Mount Vesuvius’ Deadly Eruption: A TED-Ed Animation Tells the Story

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

See the Expan­sive Ruins of Pom­peii Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Them Before: Through the Eyes of a Drone

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pom­peii

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.