While the many plaster casts of the residents of Pompeii bear witness to the harsh and swift brutality of Mount Vesuvius after its eruption in 79 A.D., more people in both Pompeii and Herculaneum actually escaped than died, and one archaeologist has managed to track down some of these very lucky people who were able to escape from what must have been a very unpleasant death, as the plaster casts can attest to.
As Forbes reports, archaeologist and historian Steven Tuck of Miami University has come up with a database of Roman last names that he used to match up with different people who once lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum that later were also found in different areas which hadn’t been affected by the fury of Mount Vesuvius.
Besides discovering where these refugees from Pompeii and Herculaneum had moved to, Tuck also wanted to “to draw conclusions about who survived the eruption, where they relocated, why they went to certain communities, and what this pattern tells us about how the ancient Roman world worked socially, economically, and politically.”
To determine where refugees from these towns had later settled, Tuck researched tombstones and public buildings for inscriptions, as wading through historical records generally only attested to the extreme physical damage that occurred a result of the eruption.
While these days news reports of physical disasters of this kind usually list some of those who have died, highlighting the tragic loss of human life that occurs in situations like these, in Roman times there were really very few personal stories written about the lives that were lost in Pompeii and Herculaneum and historians really only have a small number of narratives at their disposal, including the one written by Pliny the Younger who wrote candidly about how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, had died.
To determine who had escaped Mount Vesuvius, Tuck researched last names that were found before the eruption that ended up appearing in other places later on, while also identifying inscriptions which showed people who had once lived or been born in Pompeii.
Tuck also discovered ancient artifacts in other parts of the Roman world that would have been very popular in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which suggested that the owners of these objects may have once lived in these towns. Other crucial pieces of evidence were buildings or infrastructure that would have been constructed to shelter the many refugees who had fled from the eruption in 79 A.D.
As Tuck stated, “I looked for names at Pompeii that were prominent in the later years of the city and inscriptions that were as near as possible post-80 A.D. in the refuge communities.”
One example of a family that migrated away from the scene of the disaster was the Caninia family. After finding inscriptions about this family in Neapolis which dated back to the 2nd century A.D., Tuck was able to verify that this name was also discovered in no other region or town besides Herculaneum, suggesting that this family was able to escape from the eruption of Vesuvius and settle elsewhere.
Cornelius Fuscus, once a resident of Pompeii, was also found to have later moved to Roman Dacia after his tombstone was discovered here, showing that he had died in 87 A.D., but had lived in both Pompeii and Neopolis. As Tuck noted, this man “seems to have resettled from Pompeii to Neapolis after the eruption.”
One thing that Tuck discovered in his findings is that the Roman government reacted very differently than modern governments do today to disasters of this kind. While governments now may declare a state of emergency and work to try and assist those who have been affected by tragedy, the Roman government waited until evacuees from Pompeii and Herculaneum were resettled in other towns and then began to help them by building new infrastructure.
However, while many people did manage to escape the eruption, Tuck made it clear that there is no way today that the exact number of refugees who escaped and resettled elsewhere could ever be known.
“The evidence presented makes it clear that we can now answer the questions of whether anyone survived the eruption of Vesuvius from Pompeii and Herculaneum and where they resettled. How many refugees escaped is a question that cannot be answered with any certainty; the evidence simply is not good enough to allow for anything like accurate counts.”
Once Tuck’s final analysis of those who managed to escape from Pompeii and Herculaneum after Mount Vesuvius erupted is completed, it will be published in the open-access journal Analecta Romana.