Disruptive Nature: Vesuvio, Pompeii, and Herculaneum

The Bay of Naples, and the environs of Vesuvius, form a juncture for disciplines of archaeology, history, art history, anthropology, and economics. Due to the preservation of the cities of Herculanium and Pompeii, there is extraordinarily rich insight into the daily lives of the occupants of the region.   Direct accounts of the eruption of 79 A.D. exist in Pliny’s Letters 6.16 and 6.20.   Despite our contemporary view of the catastrophic eruptions,  Vesuvio is but a small component of the vast Campi Flegrei volcanic province (Phlegraean Fields) that is much discussed in respect to its role in junctures of neanderthal/human evolution.  Naples is the site of  important advances in geological thought, namely,  the geological principles of uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism, and the effects of active volcanism on communities, that may be both destructive and beneficial… not leaast for the  issues and challenges of archeological site preservation and management.


By way of a walk along an exterior wall, through one of the city’s necropoli, one reaches an overlook from which there is a direct view of Vesuvius looming  to the north, above Pompeii’s  tufa walls that enclose an area of 63.5 hectares. It is an appropriate place to read and reflect on the rich description and time-sequence recorded in Pliny’s letters. In regard to origins, Pompeii was founded sometime during the 7th/6th c. BC, and situated by the mouth of the Sarno river.  Originally inhabited by local indigenous peoples, the town was influenced by the Greek colony of Neapolis (Naples) to the north. Later, Etruscans and other Italic peoples took control of the city. It was first an ally to Rome in the 3rd c BC, then rebelled (along with much of Italy) in the Social War of the early 1st c BC. After the war (which the Italian cities lost) it was occupied by Rome, becoming a colony for former soldiers of the Roman general Sulla. Its previous inhabitants were forced to move to nearby cities, such as Nocera. It weathered a massive earthquake in AD 62, that caused much reconstructions, followed by the destructive Vesuvius eruption in AD 79. To date 45 hectares have been excavated.

The site gives us a rich and detailed view of daily life in antiquity, that was invisible in modern Rome. Open to view are taverns, baths, the amphitheater, temples, the forum area, various houses. There is much archaeological evidence to observe and interpret regarding neighborhood/civic organization, social distribution, religion, traffic, public entertainment, aspects of daily life visible through the  record.  To sit in an amphitheatre is to envision theater and public entertainment in the city, with the possibility of productions of non-Roman plays before a Roman audience, and the use of theater as an opportunity to propagandize  as well as entertain (Clara Hardy,Carleton College) . Also for consideration are  issues of site management and preservation, quite noticeable as numerous buildings were closed and/or in various states of disrepair.


A bus or motorcoach trip helps achieve a first  segment of the ascent of Mt Vesuvius. From the drop-off location, there is a superb climb to the crater rim of the active volcano, a dark, forboding rim of cinder that steams with volcanic emanations. Quite sobering is to observe the position of the flank of the even larger Somma Volcano–now destroyed–outside of Monte Vesuvio. Even as the volcano is powerful and capable of catastrophic events, so is its volcanic rock and hydrological system essential to the rich agriculture of the communities  surrounding the volcano and situated around the Bay of Naples.

Topics discussed during and after the walk to the summit include:

  • Location of Pompeii Herculaneum and other ancient sites in the Bay of Naples area generally (Misenum, Baiai, Cumae, etc.)
  • Orienting features in the Bay of Naples and Napoli city
  • Ages of lava flows, including those of late 19th century through 1944
  • Uniqueness of the 79 AD eruption in recent volcanic history of Vesuvius
  • Current activity in the summit crater area
  • Distinguishing eruptive products:  blocks, bombs, lapilli, glass, etc.
  • Lava composition and behavior:  the more gas-rich and light-colored the magma, the more likely it is to have an explosive eruption.
  • Why is volcanic soil rich? Glass is easily broken down (weathered) and nutrients released; Vesuvian lavas are rich in potassium (K), phosphorus (P) and, unusually for volcanic debris, nitrogen (N), three of the main nutrients plants need.

Herculaneum –

  • Herculaneum was a smaller settlement than Pompeii.  Like Pompeii, the city roads formed a grid.  Unlike Pompeii, there are fewer “public” spaces visible.
  • Herculaneum was buried in a hot, wet ash flow; hot enough to incinerate wood, cool enough for accretionary lapilli to form in the cloud.  The cloud invaded homes and ship sheds where people had sheltered; it set up like concrete almost immediately.  As a consequence, excavating at Herculaneum is immensely more challenging than clearing airfall debris at Pompeii.
  • Herculaneum is one of few sites that allow us to see houses with a second story.
  • Site preservation and management are big issues at Herculaneum.

Notes  compiled by Peter Balaam, Clara Hardy, Mary Savina – Carleton College


  • Horden and Purcell, The Corrupting Sea, Part 3, Chapter 8, Mediterranean Catastrophes, Section 2, An Unstable World, pp. 304ff.
  • Pliny, Letters 6.16 and 6.20 [on the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79]
  • Stewart, Doug, “Resurrecting Pompeii,” Smithsonian Magazine, 2006
  • Barnes, K., Europe’s Ticking Time Bomb, Nature, v. 473 (12 May 2011), p. 140-141
  • Poehler, E., “The Drainage System at Pompeii: Mechanisms, Operations and Designs,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 25 (2012): 95-120.
  • Wallace-Hadrill, A., “The Monumental Centre of Herculanium: In Search of the Identities of Public Buildings,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 24 (2011): 121-160.
  • Vitruvius, de architectura Book 6 (all)


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