On the Dating of the Vesuvius Eruption (3)

Part 2.

Foods and Other Plant Material

While some scholars are now considering an autumnal dating instead of 24 August in the year 79 C.E., [1] one of the discussions focuses on the harvest gatherings of fruits and other plant material found–at Pompeii and the surrounding Campanian area–which were trapped in time during the eruption.  These would include items such as ‘pomegranate, chestnut, dry figs, raisin grape, pine cone, dates,’ [2] among other things.  For example, at Oplontis in the villa of L. Crassus Tertius, traces of autumnal fruit, such as grain residues from grapes were discovered. [3] Another indication from Oplontis leaning towards an autumnal date, many stalks with residue, from a harvest in progress, were discovered around the winepress of the country villa of Terzigno. [4] Though, there is some evidence which favors a summer eruption.  At Herculaneum, nuts in large quantity, hulls, almonds, figs and other edible material were found.  Ciarallo and Carolis indicate that the almonds mature at the end of August and that figs ripen at the end of the month as well.  These things, among other details, favor a summer dating. [5] Although there seems to be a mixture of evidence from the fruits and various plant material, other evidences need to be investigated.


It is known that at Pompeii casts of the dead reveal evidence of wearing heavy clothing and fabrics at the time of the eruption; at Herculaneum a skeleton was found with a fur cap. [6] Could these discoveries favor an autumnal dating?  Surely this would indicate that it was a time of year when it is cold and, therefore, people were wearing heavier clothing.  This would hardly make sense with a hot summer day.  On the surface, this seems to be a plausible case for an autumn time period, but one must further evaluate the circumstances.  At the time of the eruption, falling debris of pumice and ash certainly would have caused inhabitants to take necessary safety precautions.  In Letter 6.16, Pliny writes that his uncle and others tied cushions on their heads with sheets for protection against the falling pumice debris as they were fleeing from unsafe buildings (6.16.16).  One can infer that others found with heavy clothing would have intended the same—such clothing for protection.  However one views the circumstances, it seems the clothing evidence would be inconclusive whether it was a summer or autumnal eruption.  On the one hand, if it was on a hot summer day in August, the circumstances of the eruption may have prompted the people to wear protective clothing.  But on the other hand, if it was in the autumn, the heavy clothing could have been used for colder weather, for protection, or both.

Although these matters concerning fruits, plant material, and clothing all remain debatable for discussion, there is further evidence which may lead to more determinative support of an autumnal eruption.  We’ll look at this in more detail next time!

[1] E.g., Pappalardo, Berry, Beard, Rolandi, Paone, Lascio, Stefani, and others.
[2] Rolandi et al., 94.
[3] Pappalardo, 211.
[4] Annamaria Ciarallo and Ernesto De Carolis, ‘La data dell’eruzione,’ Rivista di studi pompeiani 9 (1998): 65.
[5] Ibid., 67.
[6] Pappalardo, 211.

3 thoughts on “On the Dating of the Vesuvius Eruption (3)

  1. After trying to do as much research as I can on the subject of the date of Pompeii’s demise I have found this the is one of the best researched & presented arguments showing various evidences, or areas of uncertainty.. I am an astrologer so I am particularly interested in varifying the date given by Pliny the Younger, ie. in the various translations of his writings.

    While I have read before the suggestions as to why people may have been wearing protective clothing for the obvious reasons suggested, due to cooler weather or protection. And what if the weather was unseasonal?

    Meanwhile I also found an article written at The Times online about the analysis of fish sauce, known as garum, also found preserved at Pompeii.. suggesting that late August is the most like time of the eruption..

    “The remains of rotten fish entrails have helped to establish the precise date of Pompeii’s destruction, confirming the accounts of Roman authors, Italian archaeologists report. They have analysed the town’s last batch of garum, a pungent, fish-based seasoning, frozen in time by the catastrophic eruption that covered Pompeii and nearby towns with nine to twenty feet of hot ash and pumice.

    The desiccated remains were found at the bottom of seven jars and revealed that the last Pompeian garum was made entirely with bogue, a Mediterranean fish species. The vessels were unearthed several years ago in the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, Pompeii’s most famous garum producer.

    “Analysis of their contents confirmed that Mount Vesuvius is likely to have erupted on August 24 in AD79, as reported by Pliny the Younger in his account on the eruption,” Annamaria Ciarallo, director of the Pompeii applied research laboratory, told journalists. ”


    • Darrell, thanks for your comments. I would say that an autumnal dating for the eruption is still very plausible. The evidence of the August dating hangs on a dubious manuscript variant of Pliny’s letters. There is more weight given for a later dating, something of which I hope to cover in upcoming posts. The Times link you gave suggests the Titus coins is hardly readable, but from what I have read from Rolandi, Paone, Lascio, and Stefani, the coin is legible with no real difficulties. In fact, their article lays out very convincingly a later date based on literary, volcanological, inscription, and numismatic evidence. I would encourage you to somehow find a copy of their article (once free online, but now it isn’t): G. Rolandi, A. Paone, M. Di Lascio, and G. Stefani, “The 79 AD Eruption of Somma: The Relationship Between the Date of the Eruption and the Southeast Tephra Dispersion,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 169 (2007): 87-98.

      Hopefully within the next couple of months I will wrap up this series on the eruption. Life is busy as a teacher!

  2. Thus, for instance, the year in which the eruption took place is well known (A.D. 79); not so the month and the day, as the text of Pliny which mentions them is undoubtedly corrupt. The Neapolitan scholars have favoured autumn (November) rather than summer (August),…

    …The controversy about the precise date of the destruction of Pompeii was settled on October 11th, 1889. While excavating a bed of volcanic ashes, a few steps outside the Porta Stabiana, Signor Ruggero discovered and moulded in plaster two human forms, and that of a trunk of a tree, 3.40 metres long, 0.40 m. in diameter….

    … The middle section of the trunk is wonderfully well preserved, together with many leaves and berries. Trunk, leaves, and berries belong undoubtedly to a species of Laurus Nobilis, the fruit of which comes to maturity towards the end of autumn. Prof. Pasquale, in a paper published in the Notizie degli Scavi for 1889, p. 408, proves that the berries discovered on October 11th were perfectly ripe. This Laurus Nobilis, therefore, so ingeniously brought back to life after a lapse of one thousand eight hundred and ten years, settles the controversy concerning [p. 1289] the date of the eruption: it took place in the month of November, on November 23, A.D. 79.”’

    “” Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)


    see also Pompeii 1631 http://www.contubernium.it/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=1707

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