Geography of Vesuvius: Pompeii & Herculaneum

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The eruption of Vesuvius is one of the most famous disasters in history. In this lesson, we'll explore this topic from both physical and human geography, and see how the tragedy preserved what could have been lost knowledge about Roman city life.


Why would anyone want to settle near a volcano? Well, volcanic soil actually tends to be very fertile. Besides, what are the chances of anything happening? For example, Vesuvius (the only active volcano in Southern Europe today) has only had 8 major eruptions in the last 17,000 years. Of course, one of those eruptions in 79 CE was amongst the largest in history, completely burying the nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. While this was certainly unfortunately for the poor souls who lived there, it did preserve these two cities in remarkable condition, entombing them until archaeologists arrived centuries later.


Pompeii and Herculaneum are located in Southern Italy, around the Bay of Naples. The region is humid and warm with refreshing breezes: the archetype of Mediterranean climate. For millennia, it's been a successful farming area, with rich soils growing olives, grapes, and various kinds of grains.

The Bay of Naples, with Vesusvius

However, this area is also right over a Mediterranean fault line. Tectonic activity has heavily shaped the geography around Pompeii and Herculaneum, resulting in hilly inlands and rocky beaches. However, tectonic activity is also responsible for creating magma flows that boil up and build pressure, keeping Vesuvius alive and active. In fact, earthquakes recorded in the years before 79 CE were likely responsible for the ultimate eruption.


Let's get to know these towns a little better. Built roughly five miles from Mount Vesuvius itself, Pompeii was a thriving commercial center in the Roman Empire. It was full of artisans and craftspeople and handled much of the trade entering Italy through the Bay of Naples. At its height, this walled city covered around three square kilometers and held about 10,000-12,000 people. Another 10,000 possibly lived in the farms, villas, and suburbs surrounding the actual city.

The layout of Pompeii is a testament to its history. The oldest part of the city, predating Roman occupation, was loosely organized around a triangular city center. After becoming a Roman settlement, newer neighborhoods were more clearly laid out. Like most Roman towns, the overall pattern is built around a set of principle roads. The Via dell'Abbondanza made up the central East-West axis that ran through the city, while the north-south axis was built around the Via Stabiana.

In this model of Pompeii, you can see a few major roads, as well as the less-defined sense of organization

Pompeii's streets were relatively wide, paved in stone, and connected all of the most important city districts, including the public space called the forum, as well as the markets, temples and amphitheater. Barriers at the entrance to certain streets prevented carts, reserving those roads for foot traffic only. The Romans also placed small white stones in major roads, theoretically to help people see the roads better at nighttime. Aqueducts brought fresh water into several public fountains around the city as well. Overall, Pompeii was much like a miniature version of Rome: active, busy, and full of life.


When Mount Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii was buried in ash and stone propelled miles from the volcano. Herculaneum had a different fate. Situated right in the shadow of Vesuvius, Herculaneum was baked in superheated gas and ash before being buried in volcanic mud. Herculaneum was covered even deeper than Pompeii, making it difficult to excavate.

The layout of ancient Herculaneum, in red

While we still don't know exactly how large Herculaneum was, we do know that it was smaller than Pompeii. Part of this comes from its function. While Pompeii was a commercial center, Herculaneum was literally a resort - it was where wealthy Romans went on vacation. It was filled with expensive homes built exclusively for the purpose of relaxation, its streets were less crowded, and pace of life was slow.

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