Skip to content

The Eruption of Mont Vesuvius 79CE

  • Home
  • Posts
  • The Eruption of Mont Vesuvius 79CE
Authored by Izzy Arevalo
Published on 24th August, 2023 4 min read

The Eruption of Mont Vesuvius 79CE

A photograph of the ruins of Pompeii.

On this day (24/08/2023) in 79CE the eruption of Mont Vesuvius sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire. This event resulted in the destruction of hundreds of lives which have been immortalised in the famous casts scattered throughout the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Yet the chemical effects of the eruption preserved much of what had been destroyed, enabling historians to study these cities that have been essentially frozen in time. Much of our knowledge about the eruption comes from Pliny the Younger. He documented the event while watching it with his mother in Misenum, while his uncle, Pliny the Elder, ventured into the disaster to save lives. 

The first warning sign of the eruption was the famous earthquake of 62CE. It struck with such force that it necessitated extensive restoration works in the cities. Other signs included numerous tremors in the days leading up to the eruption. [1] The eruption itself began around midday on 24 August when Vesuvius began to smoke. This escalated to ash and pumice exploding out of the volcano and raining down from the volcanic cloud that covered the sky. [2] Pliny the Younger famously likened this sudden explosion to “an umbrella pine” , leading to what is now known as a “Plinian eruption”. [3] The continuous hail of pumice weakened roofs. By 5pm buildings had begun to collapse. The sky was so heavily covered in volcanic matter that no sunlight could penetrate, causing the surrounding area to fall into darkness. In the following hours and into the night several pyroclastic flows surged out of Vesuvius, the first hitting the smaller city of Herculaneum. On the morning of the 25th Pompeii was hit by a flow that destroyed the city and all its remaining inhabitants. [4] Yet the eruption was not the only natural disaster to occur. According to Pliny the Younger’s letters, continuous earthquakes occurred in Misenum on the morning of the 25th resulting in the sea being “forced back by the tremors of the earth” [5]. At the time no one knew what this phenomenon was. Pliny’s description and sedimentary evidence suggests that it was a tsunami wave.

Unfortunately, many people did not make it out of the city in time. Tragic stories were unearthed by archaeologists, such as those people at the boat gates in Herculaneum waiting for rescue vessels that never came. The skeletons of people from diverse backgrounds huddled inside, avoiding the hailing rock, are a poignant reminder of the horrors of that day. Many of the rescue missions that occurred after the eruption were unsuccessful as they were unable to dig down into the solid volcanic ash.

The city of Pompeii became something of a mystery, with archaeologists and historians unable to locate the site. Prior to its discovery, all we knew of Pompeii was the eruption and how successful this vast coastal city had once been. It was in the late 1500s that architect Domenico Fontana stumbled across the site while constructing an aqueduct. From that day the city has been excavated and studied. Nowadays, it is a popular tourist attraction for visitors to Neapoli. People can still wander the well-preserved streets and explore how Romans lived during the late first century. 

[1] Haraldur Sigurdsson, Stanford Cashdollar, and Stephen R. Sparks, “The Eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79: Reconstruction from Historical and Volcanological Evidence,” American Journal of Archaeology 86, no. 1 (1982): 39–51, 47.

[2] Sarah Bond, “August 24, 79: An Hour-by-Hour Account of Vesuvius’ Eruption on Its 1,937th Anniversary,” Forbes, August 24, 2016, 

[3] Domonic Berry, “Letters from an Advocate: Pliny’s ‘Vesuvius’ Narratives (Epistles 6.16, 6.20),” Papers of the Langford Latin Seminar 13 (2008): 1–22, 9.

[4] Bond, “August 24, 79: An Hour-by-Hour Account of Vesuvius’ Eruption on Its 1,937th Anniversary,”.

[5] Sigurdsson, Cashdollar, and Sparks, “The Eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79: Reconstruction from Historical and Volcanological Evidence,” 48

Authored by Izzy Arevalo

Izzy Arevalo

Share this article

Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

Get Social

Back to Top