Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview
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Recurring tremors: the continuing impact of the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius


‘Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy.’

(Goethe in Knight, 1996:11)


Mt Vesuvius (Fig. 7.1) has had numerous eruptions, but the one that took place during the early Roman Empire is the best known. Its notoriety stems largely from its historical recording, which was the earliest written description of any volcanic eruption. The extensive material record preserved by the deposits from the eruption and first revealed to the modern western intellectual world in the early eighteenth century can also take credit for this fame.

This particular eruption was a catastrophe for the many inhabitants of the Bay of Naples (Fig. 7.2) at the time, but its impact on the wider Campanian community or on Roman commerce in the first century AD was less dramatic. Rather, its influence has been felt in other ways, both real and perceived, over the many centuries since the original event. The discovery and excavation of sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroyed during the eruption, have captured the imagination of modern visitors and scholars alike and have coloured their perceptions of the original socio-economic significance of this event. Consequently, this ancient eruption and the modern discovery of its resulting debris have had a fundamental impact on modern scholarship concerning the socio-economics of the wider Roman world. The archaeological material has also profoundly influenced European art, European culture and a European sense of identity since the eighteenth century. In turn, through this influence and its social and cultural associations, these remains play an important role in the cultural and the economic development of the region today, thus ensuring that the area will be an active participant in the global village of the twenty-first century AD.

The purpose of this chapter is to contrast the impacts of the Vesuvian event on its contemporary world with its effects on later inhabitants and on the world at


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