ICE Case Studies
The Fall of Pompeii and Its Effect on Rome
by Jackie Gonzalez
It is difficult to imagine an environmental occurrence leading to the destruction of an entire population. Yet, this is what happened in 79 AD when a volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, erupted near Pompeii, one of the Roman Empire's provinces. This volcanic eruption hid the sun, caused a tsunami, and buried the city, killing its inhabitants. There was only one eyewitness to this event, who recorded the eruption and its effects in letters, and excavations of the city did not begin until 1748, nearly 1700 years after the eruption and the fall of Pompeii. Even more interesting is the fact that, in addition to the lives and environment destroyed by the eruption within Pompeii itself, Mt. Vesuvius' eruption also had an effect on Rome. Throughout its history, Pompeii had proven itself to be a worthy adversary of Rome, joining in rebellions against the Roman armies, most notably during the Social War in 90 BC. The destruction of Pompeii ended the possibility of any future conflict between powerful Rome and its province.
I. Pompeii: A Brief History
Known for its gardens and magnificent villas, Pompeii was a vacation 'hot spot' for the Roman wealthy. In fact, leading up the 79 AD eruption, Pompeii was the vacation spot for some of the most powerful people in the world, including emperors, court officials, and Roman aristocracy (Pompeii). Wealthy Pompeiian and Roman citizens alike built luxurious houses with open courtyards and many rooms. The interiors of these houses were "beautifully decorated. Finely wrought statues of marble and bronze, most inspired by Greek mythology, were common in public rooms and courtyards, and floors in many houses were paved with intricate mosaic patterns. Walls were adorned with colorful frescoes, or they were richly painted with landscapes, fantastic architectural renderings, still ifes, contemporary scenese, and mythological images" (de Boer 75-76).
The original village of Pompeii, however, was built on a volcanic ridge produced by a prehistoric lava flow by native Italian people, the Oscans. In the 6th Century BC, the Greeks settled in Pompeii, using it as an outpost. Between 524 and 474 BC, the Etruscans took control of Pompeii. Finally, the Romans took control. What is interesting throughout the early period of Rome's control over Pompeii is that no king "could shake Pompeii's loyalty to Rome" (Etienne 48). However, during this time, the Pompeii remained a fortified city, and the Pompeiians focused on maintaining their physical separation from Rome. The reason Pompeii was able to do this is because the Roman control over Pompeii remained distant. Pompeii was allowed to keep its own language and culture. The only thing they were not allowed to have was status as Roman citizens. Although the Pompeiians accepted this role for many years, in 90 BC, they finally decided it was time to demand the status of Roman citizenship.
II. The Social War
In March 90 BC, the Samnite towns of Italy came together and rebelled against Rome. This time, Pompeii joined the uprising, which became known as the Social War, the name of which came from the Latin word for allies, which is socii (The Social War-2). The Pompeiians joined the fight demanding full citizenship and rights. When Rome extended citizenship to all of its cities below the Po River, which did not include Pompeii, Pompeii refused to end its rebellion (The Social War-2). In turn, Rome responded with full force, sending Lucius Cornelius Sulla to march upon Pompeii. The Pompeiians fought well, prolonging the war for a full year. However, the Romans, being more experienced warriors, fought even better than the Pompeiians. The Romans attacked Pompeii with full force, bombarding the city's walls with large stone balls marked with the name of Sulla (Etienne 49). At the end of the war, Pompeii was garrisoned and a colony of Roman veterans was established in Pompeii as a punishment. Although Pompeii was able to profit from the destruction of the nearby city of Stabiae and the status of Roman citizenship, the Pompeiians lost their virtual independence. As further punishment for Pompeii, Rome became much more involved in Pompeiian affairs and, ten years later, renamed the city Pompeii Colonia Cornelia Venena Pompeianorum, in honor of the Romans that helped win the war (Roman Involvement in Pompeii).
A. Effect on Pompeii
The Social War had a significant effect on the city and people of Pompeii. As mentioned above, the end of the war resulted in full citizenship for the Pompeiians, yet increased control by Rome. Also, the arrival of the 2,000 Roman veterans and their families changed the city, since most of them settled on properties previously owned by citizens of Pompeii who sided with the rebels confiscated by the Romans. At this time, Latin also replaced Oscan as Pompeii's official language. Under Roman control, new buildings were created, including an amphitheater, the Temple to Venus, and the Forum baths (Colonial Era Rome). Overall, the largest effect was the fact that the Romans assumed control over Pompeii's internal affairs. For example, in 59 BC, when a fight erupted between Pompeiians and Nocerans, Emperor Nero stepped in and replaced Pompeii's political officers and even suspended Pompeii's games for a while (Etienne 61).
B. Effect on Rome
The effect on Rome does not seem to have had as significant an effect on Rome as it did for Pompeii. Other than the loss of life from the battles, Rome seems to have remained unchanged following the Social War. This coincides with the Roman victory, since they now had the ability to impose even more power upon their provinces.
III. The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
The date was 24 August, 79 AD. The Romans were celebrating the festival of Vulcanalia, their god of fire. It was during this celebration that Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing ash and poisonous gases into the air. According to Pliny the Younger, the only known eyewitness to the event,
"Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames . . . Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.
We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand. On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. . . . We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying" (Mt. Vesuvius).
Although Mt. Vesuvius had erupted in 62 AD, the volcano's 17 years of dormancy had led the Pompeiians to believe it was no longer active. The horrors mentioned above were therefore deadly as well as shocking for the city's citizens, who quickly attempted to flee the city. Most people were unable to run away fast enough and eventually lost their lives from falling buildings, the gases in the atmosphere, or falling ash. In the end, the eruption of the only active volcanic mountain on the European mainland "killed thousands of people, devastated the surrounding countryside, and destroyed at least eight towns," including Pompeii (de Boer 74).
The Social War lasted approximately one year, from 90 BC to 89 BC. The war began when Pompeii declared rebellion against the Roman Empire and ended with a Roman victory.
Begin Year: 90 BC
End Year: 89 BC
Duration: 1 year
Region: Southern Europe
(Source: CIA World Factbook)
A. Sovereign Actor: Rome
B. Non-sovereign Actor: Pompeii
When the volcano erupted, smoke, mud, flames, and burning stones came from out of Mt. Vesuvius, which sent ash and rock through the volcano's surrounding environment. According to one source, "the mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas. Adding to the destruction were the mephitic vapors that accompanied the falling debris" (Pompeii). The final volcanic blast, on 25 August, was accompanied by strong earthquakes and a giant black cloud that darkened the city for miles around. In the end, most of Pompeii was covered by almost 5 meters of volcanic debris, with ash covering around 500 square kilometers of land (de Boer 88).
Clearly, the eruption produced several different kinds of environmental problems. In addition to loss of human life, there was loss of animal and plant life, as everything within the volcano's reach was destroyed by its vapors and debris. The volcano also caused earthquakes and a tsunami, which also helped destroy the environment in Pompeii. The damage caused by the volcano also had long-term effects on neighboring cities. As mentioned above, Pompeii was not the only city to be destroyed or damaged by Mt. Vesuvius' eruption that year. Like Pompeii, these cities experienced loss of life (human, animal, and plant), pollution from the ash and gases, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In addition to the destruction of entire cities, the damage done to the environment in this region is one of the reasons the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD is so well known and why it was this particular volcano that gave birth to the science of volcanology and helped advance the study of archaelogy, since it was the study of Mt. Vesuvius that led to the study of other volcanoes around the world (de Boer 74-75).
Pompeii was located in western Italy in Campania, near the Bay of Naples. Surrounded by both the coast and the Apennine Mountains, the Campania region is a very fertile plain, containing two rivers and rich soil. Because of its fertile ground, Pompeii's crop yield was six times higher than the average yield of the rest of the Italian peninsula (Pompeii). Blessed with a moderate climate and sunny skies, the temperate environment of Pompeii is one the main reasons it was so well-liked by the aristocracy of the Empire.
Taking advantage of the fertile soil in the area, the eastern part of the city was divided into plots of farm land, as it was outside the city walls. The Pompeiians took advantage of both the mineral-rich soil as well as their proximity to the sea to prosper financially. This prosperity ended, however, with the advent of the Social War (Nappo 10-11).
Act Site: Pompeii
Harm Site: Pompeii
Interstate/Civil: The conflict between Rome and Pompeii in 90 BC, which was a part of the Social War between Rome and several of its other territories, can be categorized as an intra-state, or civil, conflict. If you consider Rome’s territories to be other states, then the conflict would be considered an inter-state conflict, or war. However, because Pompeii was considered by the Romans, and the Pompeiians themselves, to be a Roman territory, Pompeii’s rebellion during the Social War should be considered a conflict between two states.
According to one source, the casualties of Roman soldiers during its battles with Pompeii totaled approximately 300,000. Adding the unknown number of deaths from Pompeii to these 300,000 Roman soldiers, it is evident that this intra-state conflict was a high one, at least for that period.
Whereas most cases involve a conflict affecting the environment, in the case of Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius, and the Social War, it is the environment that affected the conflict. Before the eruption that destroyed the city, Pompeii had proven itself capable of rebelling against Rome when its interests weren't secured. Regardless of the fact that Rome had taken control of most of Pompeii's internal affairs, Pompeii still had the ability to revolt against Rome again at any point in the future. In other words, Pompeii could have become a threat to Rome at any point, as they had during the Social War. This threat, however, was permanently eliminated for Rome when the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (and the subsequent destruction of the environment) caused the fall of Pompeii. In this case, the environment ended any change for further conflict between Rome and Pompeii.
The specific link between the environment and conflict in this case can be further classified as an indirect link, since the Pompeiians were demanding more rights, which included more access to resources, particularly political ones. The link was also long-term, since the conflict lasted a year and the Pompeiians were demanding permanent, full rights as Roman citizens.
Although the Roman Empire was not being threatened by an outside power, the uprising of Pompeii and the other Roman provinces during the Social War presented Rome with a formidable threat. This is why Rome sent such a commanding force of 300,000 soldiers to quell the uprisings. In addition, the fact that Rome chose to establish a colony of Roman veterans within Pompeii itself suggests that the Romans also saw the Social War as a matter of honor and a protection of their way of life, as well as their powerful empire.
The outcome of the Social War was certain: the Roman forces defeated Pompeii in 89 BC. This victory was further stressed with the fall of Pompeii, which provided Rome with the assurance that Pompeii would never rise against the empire again. As previously mentioned, the effect on Rome was minimal, as they had successfully avoided a loss of power. However, the Roman victory forever changed Pompeii for both good (they were given full Roman citizenship rights) and bad (Rome was to remain in control of Pompeii until 79 AD).
Aldrete, Gregory S. Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Colley, Allison. Pompeii. London: Duckworth, 2003.
De Carolis, Ernesto. Vesuvius, AD 79: the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
Etienne, Rober. Pompeii : the day a city died. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1992.
Lobley, J. Logan. Mount Vesuvius : A descriptive, historical, and geological account of the volcano and its surroundings. London: Roper and Drowley, 1889.
Nappo, Salvatore. Pompeii: A Guide to the Ancient City. Singapore: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1998.
Robles, Emmanuel. Vesuvius. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Zeilinga de Boer, Jelle. Volcanoes in human history: the far-reaching effects of major eruptions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.
Background and Lines
Colonial Era Rome
Mt. Vesuvius Webcam
The Roman Empire
Roman Involvement in Pompeii
The Social War
The Social War-2
Volcanic Phenomena at Pompeii