Aug. 24, 2022

Mount Vesuvius Erupts

Mount Vesuvius Erupts

August 24, 79 AD. Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy, burying the thriving Roman city of Pompeii in volcanic ash.


Cold Open

It’s 79 AD in the thriving city of Pompeii, nestled in the Bay of Naples in the Campania region of the Roman Empire.

Two siblings, a young boy, and his older sister scurry through the streets, playing an ancient version of tag. The giggling boy chases his sister through the forum, a bustling public square in the heart of the city. But, just as he’s about to reach out and touch her… a low and ominous tremor rattles through the streets. Frightened, the two siblings abandon their game and decide to go find their father. They run in the direction of a nearby taverna where he often takes mid-afternoon breaks from work.

Inside, the children see find their father drinking and playing a game with a group of other men. The children watch as their dad rears back… and rolls a pair of roman dice.

It seems the father is lucky. And victorious, he laughs heartily and takes a celebratory swig of wine.

But his children tugger his sleeve, panting and out of breath. He looks out at them and sees their concerned faces.

But before he can ask what’s wrong… there’s another tremor, much stronger this time. The noisy tavern suddenly gets quiet and everyone exchanges nervous glances.

Then, the walls around them start to shake and shudder. Concerned, the father takes his children by the hand… and leads them out into the street where a growing crowd of concerned citizens are gathering. 

Each one of them looks in the direction of the large mountain towering over the city: Mount Vesuvius. The two children clutch their father's hand. They tremble with fear, as the sky darkens… and in the mountain, volcano belches its fiery innards into the air.

The town of Pompeii is one of the Roman Empire’s most prosperous cities. Home to about 20,000 citizens, the city is known for its pleasant climate, thriving agriculture, and proximity to the sea. But the town is also notable for being close to Mount Vesuvius, one of Europe’s largest volcanoes.

But Vesuvius has been dormant for centuries. No one has been truly concerned in living memory. But in 79 AD, the mighty volcano roars to life, unleashing an 18-hour-long onslaught of gas, cinders, and molten rock that kills thousands and buries several Roman cities under feet of ash and stone.

Though surviving eyewitness records of what actually happened on that day are scarce, the most detailed account comes from a Roman lawyer, author, and magistrate who tells a harrowing tale of bravery and heroism that began with Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, an event he says happened on August 24th, 79 AD.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is August 24th, 79 AD: Mount Vesuvius Erupts.

Act One: Pliny the Elder

It’s past noon on August 24th, 79 AD in Misenum, a port city two dozen miles north of Pompeii.

Inside a villa, a man in his 50s lounges and enjoys his favorite pastime: poring over books.

Pliny the Elder, as he’s known, is one of the senior most officials in the Roman Empire. From Misenum, he commands the Imperial Navy. Pliny loves this part of Italy; he adores the sunny hills, bountiful forests, and fertile plains. Later this afternoon, Pliny plans to go fishing with his teenage nephew Gaius. Until then, he’s relaxing, and enjoying the book.

But soon, his sister bursts into the room. Flustered, she tells him to come outside immediately. Pliny is reluctant to leave his book, but his sister insists. So Pliny slips on his boots and steps outside. His eyes grow wide when he sees the giant plume of smoke rising in the distance.

Pliny’s heart flutters with fear but also excitement. Pliny is more than just a military man and a statesman. He’s a naturalist, perhaps the greatest of his time. He’s the author of a 37-volume encyclopedia of natural history. And while earthquakes are common in the area, Pliny has never seen anything like this before. He doesn’t know which mountain is spewing out the fire and smoke but he’s determined to find out. He wants to get closer and investigate the phenomenon. So he orders his men to prepare a ship so he can sail south toward the plume.

But just as he’s about to leave, an exhausted messenger arrives and informs Pliny that the smoke is coming from Mount Vesuvius and that the people who live in the shadow of the mountain are in dire trouble.

At that moment, Pliny makes a fateful decision. He abandons his scientific pursuit for a rescue mission. He orders his entire fleet to sail for Vesuvius to save the people of Pompeii.

Later, as Pliny and his ships approach the shore, the waters of the bay are violent and choppy. He can feel heat on his face. He watches as cinders and burning black rocks rain down from Vesuvius into the roaring waves, and peppering the decks of his ships. Pliny knows that to save the people of Pompeii he must reach the shore. But he fears it will be impossible.

His ships are powered by hundreds of oarsmen who fight with every sinew as they row through the roaring tempest. But the rough sea is too treacherous. And there’s not a clear path, the shore is obstructed by vast fragments of smoking rocks that have fallen down from the mountain.

Looking around him, Pliny accepts that he will never be able to make land here.

For a moment, he considers turning back and going home. But he is always been driven by the old Roman saying: “fortune favors the bold”. So while Pliny can’t reach Pompeii, there are other cities in peril, filled with Roman citizens who need his help.

So Pliny redirects his fleet south toward the nearby city of Stabiae. And as he departs, he can only hope that the mighty Vesuvius will be forgiving to the people of Pompeii.


Meanwhile, inside a ramshackle house on a street in Pompeii, a man and his wife huddle close with their young child. Outside, they hear the streets bustling with people desperate to flee.

Earlier today, around noon, the once docile Mount Vesuvius roared to life and released a gigantic cloud of fire and smoke. Ever since, Vesuvius has been spitting out its fiery insides, causing a seemingly never-ending downpour of ash, debris, and flame. But the young couple isn’t fleeing with their fellow Pompeians. They’re too poor, and they have nowhere to go.

When their young child asks if everything is going to be alright, the father and mother share a concerned glance. Then the father musters a reassuring smile and says, “all will be well”. But deep down, he’s not so sure. Knowing that all he can really do is pray that God will protect his family but the father’s prayers will be in vain.

Vesuvius will continue its fiery destruction. And before long, waves of toxic gas and volcanic ash will pour into the city, killing the father, his family, and as many as 2,000 of their fellow Pompeians, and entombing their bodies in cinders. 

Act Two: Evacuation

It’s the evening of August 24th, 79 AD.

Pliny the Elder strides through the small port city of Stabiae, about nine miles south of Pompeii.

Earlier today, Pliny tried to reach Pompeii in the hopes of rescuing people there, but making land was impossible. The waters were too treacherous, and the bay was littered with volcanic debris. So he redirected his fleet south and traveled here to Stabiae. He made good time on his journey. The wind at his back was strong. But when he arrived, Pliny was still exhausted from the day’s events, and so was his crew. So Pliny ordered his men to get some rest so they can begin their rescue mission at first light.

Now, Pliny heads to the house of a friend who lives here in Stabiae. As he walks through the streets, Pliny glances up at the blackened sky. He is confident he’s not in any danger. Still, he can see the gigantic cloud of smoke and fire in the distant sky, creeping closer. Pliny doesn’t want to stay here a moment longer than he has to. But the same strong wind that carried him swiftly to the city is blocking his escape. His ships won't be able to move out of the bay until the wind lets up.

So Pliny puts on a brave face, finds his friend's house, and the two embrace. Pliny's friend is clearly anxious but somewhat assuaged by Pliny's insistence that there's nothing to worry about. Pliny continues to exude calm by asking for a bath and a hot meal.

The conversation over the dinner, of course, turns to the fire in the sky that’s lighting up the night. And Pliny's friend admits he’s terrified.

Pliny is afraid too. But more than that, he is exhausted and retreats to a guest room to get some rest. Eventually, his eyes grow heavy and he drifts off into a deep sleep.

But while Pliny slumbers, the cloud grows and approaches Stabiae, causing ash and debris to rain down from the sky.

Pliny wakes with a start to someone shaking him. He looks up to see his friend, wide-eyed with fear. Through panicked breaths, he says the courtyard outside is almost filled with stones and ash. If they stay any longer, they won’t be able to get out. And just then, the ground shakes and the house begins to tremble. Pliny fears the walls are about to cave in. He tells his friend they have to run.

They grab pillows to use as shields against the falling debris and they dart outside. As soon as Pliny breathes the open air, noxious fumes burn his nostrils. But he and his friend fight through the discomfort, running as fast as they can through the smoke to the relative safety of a nearby field.

Soon enough, the sun is rising, but it is blotted by the smoky clouds. Pliny and his friend are forced to fashion torches to see their way back to shore where Pliny hopes to join his crew and hopefully escape by sea. But when he finally arrives, his face falls. The wind has still not subsided, and the water is too choppy to set sail. Pliny is trapped.

Realizing his peril, Pliny suddenly feels defeated and weak. His men lay him down on a sailcloth so he can regain his strength. Parched and struggling to breathe, Pliny calls out for water which his men quickly fetch. But as Pliny sips the cool liquid, the air thickens with the overwhelming stench of sulfur. Then the sky lights up with a burst of flames and a large wave of ash and smoke draws near. Many of Pliny’s men run away in fear. But a few stay behind to care for their commander. Pliny struggles to climb to his feet. But as his men try to help him up, Pliny’s body gives out. His breath ceases. And he falls to the ground dead.

One of the few surviving members of Pliny's crew seek out his nephew, Gaius, describe Pliny’s final acts to him in vivid detail. Gaius is devastated but proud of Pliny’s bravery. As a tribute to his fallen uncle, Gaius assumes Pliny's name.

Decades later, Pliny the Younger, as he’s now known, relates the story of that tragic day in letters to a historian named Tacitus. These letters are the only surviving eyewitness accounts of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which devastated the Campania region, buried several cities; including most significantly, Pompeii.

But despite Pliny the Younger’s account, the story of Pompeii’s demise eventually fades from memory. The once vibrant city is lost to the world. Until, more than 1600 years later, when the story of Pompeii reemerges from beneath the layers of volcanic rock, preserved for eternity by the same fiery ash and cinder that caused its destruction. 

Act Three: Excavation

It’s April 1st, 1748, in Naples, Italy. Six miles from Mount Vesuvius.

Under the hot Italian sun, a 46-year-old Spanish military engineer named Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre wipes the sweat from his brow. He glances about at the vast digging operation taking place all around him. He is excited and hopeful that his team of excavators are on the brink of another incredible discovery.

Ten years earlier, Alcubierre led an excavation team not far from this site. There, he uncovered the Roman city of Herculaneum. After Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, this small city had been buried 20 meters below the surface. The team tunneled down and were amazed to discover a theater, as well as several murals. Over the course of a decade, they continued digging and revealed a buried city of bronze and marble statues, ancient potteries, and papyrus scrolls. Now, Alcubierre hopes this new site will yield equally rare discoveries.

He believes it to be the location of Stabiae, where Pliny the Elder is said to have died. As his excavators continue their digging, it becomes apparent that he has indeed uncovered another buried ancient city. But it is not the one he thinks.

As his team continues to dig, they realize that this city has been fantastically preserved; as if a single moment in time was captured by the thick layer of soot and ash. The architecture, homes, and huts are largely intact. Even the human remains are in a surprisingly preserved state; their expressions of shock and fear imprinted in the hardened volcanic ash. And then eventually, on August 20th, 1763, an inscription is found that correctly identifies the site. It reads Rei Publicae Pompeianorum,the Republic of Pompeii.

But this discovery doesn’t answer every question about the city’s destruction. Nor will the excavation of the site, a process that continues even today.

Throughout the centuries, experts have debated what really happened. In recent years, new discoveries have given credence to the idea that Pliny the Younger was wrong about the date. While most scholars agree that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, some argue that the catastrophic eruption actually happened in October, and not in August. It’s likely that the truth will never be known.

Today, Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. It last erupted in 1944 and another eruption is expected. The so-called “death zones” surrounding Vesuvius are still home to 700,000 people, making it one of the most potentially dangerous volcanoes on Earth.

Still, the ruins of Pompeii are the most popular archaeological site in the world. Millions of tourists visit every year. They walk down the same streets and enter rooms inhabited by the thousands of Pompeiians who were entombed there by the eruption. The city now exists as an extraordinary time capsule where visitors can imagine the lives of those individuals who found themselves tragically trapped when Mount Vesuvius erupted, perhaps on this day, August 24th, 79 AD.


Next on History Daily. August 25th, 1944. The Nazis lose their grip on the French Capital when the famous battle, known as the Liberation of Paris, comes to an end.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore and Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.