A Sourcebook (Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World)

Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World)


What was the Roman Empire’s reaction to the destruction of Pompeii?
This book presents translations of a wide selection of written records which survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, giving a vivid impression of what life was like in the town. From the labels on wine jars to scribbled insults, and from advertisements for gladiatorial contests to love poetry, the individual chapters explore the early history of Pompeii, its destruction, leisure pursuits, politics, commerce and religion, plus early reports of its excavation. Information about the c… more about book…

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What was the Roman Empire’s reaction to the destruction of Pompeii?(r/AskHistorians)

Yes, the eruption of Pompeii was a natural disaster of such scale that it must have caused considerable ‘national’ trauma at the time. We don’t know exactly how many people died in the eruption of Vesuvius in autumn 79 AD (luckily the volcano had been showing warning signs for some time leading up to the eruption and many people had evacuated from the Bay of Naples): it could be anywhere between 2,000-20,000 victims. But, the eruption wiped out whole cities, villages, towns and the fertile agricultural farming land around the Bay, so the economy and society of the region collapsed and needed total rebuilding. The grieving and healing process (both emotional and physical) must have been enormous, but unfortunately only a fraction of that discourse survives. So, I’m afraid it’s impossible to say how well informed an ‘average Roman’ (= a slave, poor citizen or a provincial?) would have been and how wide-spread the news of the eruption were orally; see u/XenohponTheAthenian’s excellent post on how news were spread in ancient Rome here. However, quite a notable number of elite Roman authors make reference to the eruption in Pompeii still centuries after the event, suggesting that the wound inflicted on the Roman collective memory was deep. If anyone wants to look for further references from primary sources, the Cooleys’ Pompeii: a Sourcebook has a good section on the eruption (and is also where I’ve picked the following translations from!).

The most famous literary description of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is of course in Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus, where he describes the disaster (as he personally witnessed it as a young boy) where his uncle, Pliny the Elder, heroically died. Many poets and historians wrote of the event in addition to him, however. For example, the poet Statius (45-95 AD) was born in Naples and was greatly saddened by the destruction of his home region, and wrote verses about it very vividly and dramatically in three of his books in Silvae (e.g. 3.5.72–5, 4.4.78–85, 5.3.205–8). Volcanic eruptions as a culmination of evil omens and divine wrath became a not uncommon simile/metaphor in Latin poetry after Vesuvius for centuries. Some hundred years later Tertullian, an early African Christian apologetic, wrote that natural disasters cannot be explained as God’s wrath against Christians neglecting their worship, since no Christians lived in Pompeii during the eruption (Tertullian, Apology 40.8); so the eruption was still widely known and freshly remembered in the late second century AD. Here’s one dramatic description of the eruption that I really like and that is not very well-known from Cassius Dio (153-235 AD); he explains the event in somewhat superstitious terms:

> Many huge men, greater than human size, as giants are depicted, made an appearance, now on the mountain, now in the surrounding countryside and the cities, wandering day and night on the earth and passing through the air. After this were terrible droughts and sudden violent earthquakes, so that the whole plain seethed and the summits leapt up, there were roars, some underground like thunder, some on the surface like bellowing of oxen. The sea too roared and the sky re-echoed it. Then a sudden portentous crash was heard as if the mountains were collapsing, and first enormous stones were thrown up to reach the height of the mountain-tops themselves, then great quantity of fire and endless smoke so that the whole sky was shaded, the sun completely hidden as if eclipsed.
So day became night, light darkness. Some thought the giants were rising in revolt (for many of their forms could be seen through the smoke, and in addition a sound of trumpets was heard). Others thought that the whole universe was being consumed by chaos or fire. Therefore they fled, some from their houses into the streets, some from outside indoors; from the sea inland and from there to the sea, since in their confusion they thought that wherever they were not was safer than where they were. At the same time, an unbelievable quantity of ash was blown out, covering land, sea, and all the sky. Not surprisingly, it did a great deal of damage to men, farms, and cattle. It destroyed all fish and birds and, in addition, it buried two whole cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii, while its population was sitting in the theatre. The whole cloud of dust was so great that some of it reached Africa, Syria and Egypt; it also reached Rome, filling the sky above it and darkening the sun. It occasioned no little fear for several days since people did not know and could not imagine what had happened, but thought that everything was being turned upside down and that the sun was vanishing into the earth and the earth being lifted into the heavens. However, this ash did them no great damage, but later brought a terrible plague on them.
> Dio Cassius 66.21–23

So, to sum up, the eruption of Pompeii was a very famous event already in ancient Rome and inspired Roman fear and literary renditions for centuries. As to OP’s second question: Roman government not uncommonly helped areas stricken by natural disaster. E.g. earlier in 10’s AD a disastrous earthquake shook the densely populated areas in the province of Asia, and the emperor Tiberius gave 10 million sestertii for relief aid and freed the area from all financial liabilities to the senatorial and imperial treasuries for five years (Tacitus, Annales 24.7). The eruption of Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples naturally hit much closer to home. In 79 AD, the emperor was Titus (emperor only briefly in 79-81 AD), who had succeeded to the throne only two months before the eruption, and undoubtetly his competence to deal with such a disaster was closely analysed by his contemporaries. We know of the steps he took to help the victims from Suetonius and Cassius Dio:

> In his [Titus’] reign, several dreadful disasters occurred – an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, a fire at Rome that burned for three days and nights, and one of the worst ever outbreaks of the plague. In the face of all these disasters, he displayed not merely the concern of an emperor but also the deep love of a father, whether by offering messages of sympathy or by giving all the financial help he could. He selected by lot some senators of consular rank to regenerate Campania, and allocated the property of those who had died in the eruption and who had no surviving heirs to the renewal of the afflicted towns.
> Suetonius, Titus 8.3)

> In the following year, a fire on the ground spread over a very large part of Rome while Titus was away following the disaster in Campania. . . Titus therefore sent two ex-consuls to Campania to refound the settlements and gave money and the possessions of those who had died without heirs. Titus himself took no money from individuals or cities or kings although many kept giving and promising him large sums, but restored all the damage from his resources.
> Dio Cassius 66.24.1, 3–4

EDIT: Forgot to mention one interesting theory about the Romans’ reaction to the eruption of Vesuvius! As some numismatics experts have noted (like for example David R. Sear briefly here), the coinage of Titus’ reign features a “curious allay” of religious symbols of prayer and propitiation. These icons are nothing previously unheard of, but it’s very unusual that practically all of the coins of such a short reign are devoted to such a wide variety of gods and goddessess. So, there’s a possibility that Titus’ point was to appease the gods (that must have appeared very angry after Vesuvius!) through dedicating his coins to divine forces. By turning the publicly circulated coins into collective ‘offers of prayer’, perhaps the common folk, too, would have been reminded of the eruption of Vesuvius when handling money in their daily lives? Thus the coins made the disaster of Vesuvius loom as a large and imminent proof of the gods’ frightening might everywhere in the empire.


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Alison E. Cooley

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Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World)

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