When scientists recently re-examined the ancient remains of people killed in the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, they were surprised by two findings in particular. For one thing, the ancient people of Pompeii seemed to have had perfect teeth, perhaps a product of a healthy diet and the high-fluorine air and water of their environment.
And, for another, it seems they didn't die in the manner researchers long suspected. Instead of being choked by a sudden blanket of ash and hot gas, Pompeii’s doomed residents sustained fatal head injuries, likely from collapsing structures and volcanic rocks that rained from the sky.
How they died has long been a fascination among historians and archaeologists. This curiosity is understandable. The eruption of Vesuvius was so devastating it is practically unimaginable. (To the people who lived in Pompeii at the time, it must have been beyond stunning: The volcano had gone generations without so much as a puff of steam, and it was believed to be dead.)
The death toll is uncertain but scholars believe as many as 25,000 people were killed. “With the eruption of Vesuvius, scholars, thinkers, and moralizers for centuries have been scrutinizing the death of all those victims,” said Roger Macfarlane, a classics professor at Brigham Young University. And over the centuries, scholars have pieced together astounding details about the circumstances of their deaths. We know, from ancient documents, that some people tied pillows to their heads. Plaster body-casts of victims, their remains preserved in volcanic ash, reveal the outlines of tunic fabric covering mouths trying to escape the sulphuric air. But implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the search for answers over mass casualty, is a much more troublesome question: Why?
“Judgmental moralizers,” Macfarlane told me, “have had a heyday with Pompeii over the years.”
The idea that victims of natural disasters are to blame for their fate is common in the aftermath of any tragedy. This tendency often reveals ugly underlying prejudices. After a tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people in Japan in 2011, some Americans made headlines for shrugging off the enormity of the loss as karmic payback for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, a congressman representing Baton Rouge was overheard telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.”
In the case of Pompeii, these sorts of projections span centuries. Comparisons to Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities God destroys in the book of Genesis, still come up frequently. The question of whether Pompeii’s destruction was divine punishment has been explored in paintings, plays, films, and novels. One such story is The Last Days of Pompeii, by the popular 19th-century writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Widely read in his time, Bulwer-Lytton is credited with bringing the story of Pompeii into mainstream Western culture, which underscores the prominence of the idea that Pompeii was cursed for the sins of its people.
“Edward Bulwer-Lytton was not the first thinker to explain how somehow the volcano destroyed a people that were ripened in iniquity,” Macfarlane said. “The Last Days of Pompeii features the melodramatically dastardly villain, Arbaces, who is essentially blown to smithereens in the eruption, even as the noble protagonist Glaucus survives. Likewise Robert Harris’s vulcanologically savvy (and highly readable) novel Pompeii (2003) rumbles up a good yarn until the exploding mountain blows away the highly deserving Ampliatus in an ‘incandescent sandstorm… blast[ing] him, burst[ing] his eardrums, ignit[ing] his hair, bl[owing] his clothes and shoes off, and whirl[ing] him upside down, slamming him against the side of a building.’ Harris gives this villain what the novel shows he deserves.”
As historians have pieced together a rich narrative of the real lives and deaths of those who lived at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, cultural narratives about why the disaster wiped out an entire people have persisted. Maybe, the idea seems to be, the inhabitants of Pompeii deserved the terror they experienced. “I honestly wonder about the sometimes pervasive human impulse to judge victims of natural disasters,” Macfarlane said. “Did they get what was coming to them? Many a moralizer has stated that the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum must have been steeped in wickedness to have been obliterated in such a horrifying instant.”
It is cruel to blame the victims of an epic volcanic eruption for their demise. But understandable, too. It is human nature, after all, to seek higher meaning, even justice, in events that are otherwise impossibly tragic—even though, and perhaps precisely because, it is rare to find it. There is fear in this way of thinking: Maybe if those people deserved to die, I will be safe.
“Such moralization heads to a set of questions we perhaps can never answer about the victims of Pompeii,” Macfarlane said. “Did innocence or guilt play any role in the natural selection of victims? Surely not. What, then, did determine the fatal choices of certain victims? Careful forensics will bring intriguing clues, to be sure. However, answers that depend upon interpretation of motive are always going to be the hardest to achieve.”