Vesuvius: An Eye-Witness Account

In this week’s lesson, we explored the details of the eruption of Vesuvius on 24th and 25th August, 79 AD through the eyes of Pliny the Younger, who left us a very detailed and vivid eye-witness account. This account has enabled archaeologists and scientists to better understand both this particular eruption and many others. We were lucky to have him in person – sort of – to be interviewed about his experiences!

You can see a brief reminder of how volcanoes work using this video. We looked at the timeline of Pliny the Younger’s account, starting in the early afternoon, when Pliny’s uncle, Piny the Elder, noted an unusual cloud, pointed out by his mother:

” It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches”.


We saw how the umbrella pine tree which Pliny wrote of did indeed look very like the sort of cloud produced by volcanic eruptions of this nature. Pliny’s uncle got into a boat and sailed straight into danger, and unfortunately, this caused him to lose his life.

Pliny gives us lots of detail which helps paint a very vivid and realistic picture of the scene, describing people tying pillows to their heads to prevent themselves from being hit from the falling pumice stone, and how daylight was blotted out by the dense ash cloud.

You can remind yourself of the full account here.

We finished the lesson by looking at some of the body casts which have been made from the gaps left by the disintegrated bodies. The Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli devised this method of creating models out of the gaps left by the bodies in the nineteenth century excavations of the city.


We discussed how the body casts suggest intriguing and harrowing stories in their various poses and apparent body types – a small boy, a two people clutching each other, a group of people at what has become known as the “Garden of the Fugitives”, and many more. Professor Mary Beard writes an interesting article here on the body casts and the diverse reactions they produce.

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