What Have Historians Gotten Wrong About the Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius?

An newly-discovered inscription from Pompeii that appears to date from mid-October AD 79 casts doubt on the long-accepted date of Mt Vesuvius' eruption on 24 August.
An newly-discovered inscription from Pompeii that appears to date from mid-October AD 79 casts doubt on the long-accepted date of Mt Vesuvius' eruption on 24 August.

In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius blew its top in southern Italy, causing one of the deadliest volcanic events in European history. The massive eruption of super-heated gases and molten rock shot to a height of 21 miles (33 km), releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy generated by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Several towns were leveled, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the overall death toll is unknown. The actual date of the event is also now in doubt. Based on ancient accounts (especially the letters of Pliny the Younger), the date for the eruption was long thought to have been August 24. However, the discovery of a charcoal scrawl that mentions a mid-October date -- likely made by a worker renovating a home -- indicates that the blast more likely occurred on October 24. The new discovery supports some existing archaeological evidence for a later eruption date, including autumn fruits and heating braziers found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Piecing together the story of Pompeii:

  • The discovery was made during an excavation at the Regio V site, which uncovered previously untouched areas of Pompeii. In addition to the inscription, grand houses with elaborate frescoes and mosaics were found.

  • At the time of the eruption, the total population of Pompeii and Herculaneum was thought to be over 20,000. The remains of more than 1,500 people have been found so far.

  • Pompeii is the second most-visited tourist site in Italy, after the Colosseum in Rome. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of Vesuvius National Park.

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    • An newly-discovered inscription from Pompeii that appears to date from mid-October AD 79 casts doubt on the long-accepted date of Mt Vesuvius' eruption on 24 August.
      An newly-discovered inscription from Pompeii that appears to date from mid-October AD 79 casts doubt on the long-accepted date of Mt Vesuvius' eruption on 24 August.