Modern visitors to the ruins of the two main cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD are usually enthralled when they see the site of plaster casts of those who were killed, frozen in the midst of action. The catastrophic eruption wiped out several nearby towns and killed thousands of people.
But some survived, and Miami University archaeologist and historian Steven Tuck thinks he knows where they ended up. He created a database of Roman names and matched them with records from other cities in Italy, describing his findings in a forthcoming paper in the journal
“Tuck’s combination of history and archaeology has produced strong evidence that it is possible to trace Vesuvian refugees,” bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove wrote at about this new work. “He finds that many refugees settled on the north side of the Bay of Naples, and that families tended to move together and then to marry within their refugee community.”
The vast majority of people in Pompeii and Herculaneum—the cities hardest hit—perished from asphyxiation, choking on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But at least some of the Vesuvian victims probably died instantaneously from the intense heat of fast-moving lava flows, with temperatures high enough to boil brains and explode skulls. Less is known about the fortunate survivors.
The default assumption among the general populace is that everybody was wiped out. That’s largely true for Herculaneum, where the city was destroyed in roughly two hours. Unless people managed to jump onto a ship in the harbor in the first ten minutes, they would have succumbed to the pyroclastic flows (fast-moving hot ash, lava fragments, and gases) that swept through and obliterated the town. If the ash didn’t get them, the tsunami that developed in the wake of the eruption, and the accompanying earthquake (and aftershocks), would have done so.
“But for Pompeii, it took three days for everything to be wiped out,” said Tuck. “Anybody who left immediately, or who was out of town on business, survived.” He assumed the survivors would skew heavily toward the richest denizens and was surprised to learn that the vast majority were women and freedmen. The latter made up a large proportion of the business class in the Roman world, with merchant warehouses and real estate holdings in the major harbor city of Puteoli, for example, so Tuck surmises they may have been traveling on business when Vesuvius erupted.
Tuck’s interest in this issue was piqued when he toured Italy a few years ago with his former undergraduate advisor and a few students. At the archaeological site of Cumae, the first ancient Greek colony on Italy’s mainland, the professor pointed out all the rebuilding that had occurred and asked why that would be the case. And he posed the question: what happened to the people who made it out from Pompeii? When no one in the group answered, he gestured to the site. “He had this idea but he couldn’t figure out how to prove it,” said Tuck, who realized epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) might hold the answer.
Tuck spent several months developing eight separate categories of evidence (four primary and four supporting) and compiling databases of family names from Roman communities around Latium and Campania. These included the origin cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the most likely refugee cities (Capua, Cumae, Naples, Nola, Ostia, Paestum, Puteoli, Salerno, Surrentum, Ulubrae, and Velia).
Primary evidence included specific individuals cited in inscriptions in both the origin and refuge cities, cases where Pompeian or Herculanean names started appearing in communities where they hadn’t existed before, and explicit references to origin (e.g, would indicate someone who originated from the city).
“There’s probably a lot more survivors out there that I can’t find.”
Supporting evidence would include evidence of intermarriage between two or more refugee families (after relocation); artifacts or cult objects associated with Pompeian or Herculaneum gods in the refugee communities; the construction of new public infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of refugees in the period after the Vesuvius eruption; and mining the data from isotope analysis of human remains showing trace elements in the bones as evidence of the population’s mobility (Killgrove’s field of research).
“I was as conservative as possible in terms of what I accepted as evidence,” said Tuck, and didn’t count anyone as a survivor or refugee unless they checked boxes in multiple categories. “There’s probably a lot more survivors out there that I can’t find.” People who moved in with family members in the refugee cities, for instance, would be largely invisible to this kind of analysis if they shared common Roman names (Cornelius or Cornelli, for instance). Tuck focused primarily on new names previously uncommon in the refugee cities.
Tuck found evidence of refugees (mostly from Pompeii, given the low survival rate at Herculaneum) settling in communities on the north side of the Bay of Naples, usually moving as families. For instance, he found six members of the Caninia family on tomb inscriptions at Naples, a name otherwise only appearing in earlier records from Herculaneum. One of them, Marcus Caninius Botrio, is recorded in the Album of Herculaneum and entombed at Naples. So it’s likely the family relocated because of Vesuvius.
Decisions about where to go were apparently driven by personal factors: cities where survivors had family, friends, or professional contacts. Governments then invested in building more infrastructure to accommodate the influx of refugees. Tuck found records of rulers visiting to survey the damage and earmarking funds for construction, including a quote from explicitly mentioning taking the estates of those who died in the blast without heirs and redirecting the wealth to communities where the refugees were settling. (The earthquake and aftershocks after the eruption also damaged many of the surrounding towns.)
“I’m guessing that people who fled south probably died in larger numbers outside the city,” said Tuck. “If you look at a map of the bodies found at Pompeii, they’re almost all found on the south side of the city, which makes sense because the volcano was on the north side. If it erupts, your first thought is to run away from it.” There is some irony in the fact that people who counter-intuitively fled north and got out of the blast zone quickly stood a better chance of surviving.
Tuck concedes there are still plenty of gaps in his analysis; his database doesn’t include Rome, for instance, because the city was just so vast. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people escaped the volcano; but he has answered the question of where the survivors went. “Tuck’s work, combined with bioarchaeological evidence from the skeletons of people who were trapped by Vesuvius, and with biochemical evidence in the form of isotope and ancient DNA analysis, paves the way for a fuller understanding of this catastrophic natural disaster and its ramifications on the Roman people,” Killgrove wrote.