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Mediterranean History Courses

Current Course:
Spring semester, 2021: Vesuvius, Pompeii, and all that

  • Ten two hour on-line (ZOOM) sessions.
  • Click this link to join meetings.
  • Password for meetings is pv2021.
  • Classes are on Mondays, 12 noon to 2 PM -- March 8 through May 17 (skip March 29  
When, in 79 AD, did the eruption happen?

Course introduction:

Capo Miseno today.'s naval HQ was on the peak of the hill,  from which he could view all of the Bay of Naples.

Naples Bay, Misenum Naval Base, Autumn 79 AD -- Pliny the Elder, an acute observer of natural phenomena, had already noted the ripples on the surface of the wine in his glass; the earth was shaking under his naval headquarters on the northern edge of the Bay of Naples.  Ancient Greek and Roman historians and naturalists had, for a long time, warned of the fires under the volcano and described the charred rocks around its peak.  Local mythology warned that a giant was buried under the mountain -- the brother of the more active giant trapped under Mount Etna in Sicily -- and warned that both were struggling to get out. 

There had been massive eruptions centuries and millennia before; the whole of the Bay of Naples is but one-fourth of the huge caldera, and Vesuvius is only a small vent on its edge.  But Naples Bay area residents and ancient Roman vacationers and tourists in the towns clustered around the base of Vesuvius were not aware of the significance of the early warning signs.  In fact many in Pompeii even had forgotten their local mythology and religion; they had turned to the worship of an Egyptian goddess, Isis, who apparently knew nothing of volcanoes. 

In theAutumn of 79 AD, they briefly had cause to regret what they had forgotten.  Their regrets were brief, because the next day they were mostly dead.  Thousands of bodies have been recovered since those two days, and many more thousands (the folks that fled the towns) are still out there in the unexcavated countryside under thick layers of ash and clasts. 

Our class will look at the geology and history of the area around the Neapolitan caldera and then at the 79 AD eruption and its aftermath.  We will explore the ruins and see the recovered artifacts.  We'll read the eyewitness description of the eruption written by Pliny the Younger, who declined the invitation to accompany his uncle, Pliny the Elder, on his fatal fact-finding and attempted rescue mission into the danger area.  Even so, Pliny the Younger had to flee the final paroxysmal pyroclastic flow that roared down the spoles of Vesuvius and almost 20 miles across the Bay of Naples. 

There's much more:  see (which includes some suggested readings beyond the course handouts) and

And be warned:  Vesuvius is overdue for another major eruption.

Click this line for course materials for Vesuvius, Pompeii, and all that.

Textbooks:  There's really no need for a textbook: there will be copious handouts.  For those who just have to read more, first start with the free stuff from the internet.  Click here to get started (and use your browser's "back" key to come back to this page).  That old chestnut, Bulwer Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii is available, full text, at several Internet sites:  the easiest to read, I think, is at  It is neither accurate nor factual, but you may enjoy reading a period piece.  Lytton is also the man who wrote, "It was a dark and stormy night...."

Want to buy a book?

Recently Published:  There is no better book on Pompeii and Vesuvius than The World of Pompeii. It is universally acclaimed as the most thorough, most up-to-date, and most accurate book on Pompeii and the 79 AD eruption that buried Pompeii and the other cities surrounding Vesuvius.  The book is actually a compilation of chapters written by the foremost experts on various subjects related to the study of Pompeii and Vesuvius.  It is available on the internet for about $50 in paperback or $260 in hardcover.  It comes with a CD that contains six large-scale site maps for Pompeii and Herulanum as well as brief notes on the sources and uses of the maps. 

Michale Grant's Cities of Vesuvius is available in a new edition from online booksellers for about $25 (paperback), but it does not seem to be updated, so the volcanology is somewhat obsolete (1980s).

The Robert Harris NY Times bestselling novel, Pompeii, is available in various used editions for under $5 (click here), and it's a good read giving both flavor of the eruption of AD 79 and some correct information on how the earthshaking event affected the local water supply.   The hero of the Harris book is an "Aquarius" -- a water inspector -- and, of course there is a friendly, noble, nubile girl.  (Spoiler alert:  their escape through an underground water conduit is implausible; what's the sound a lobster makes when you throw it into the boiling pot?)  
  Instructor: Tom Wukitsch
Ancient Rome 1 & 2

Carthage and Ancient North Africa

Pompeii, Vesuvius, and all That

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Greece 1 & 2

Medieval Rome 


Renaissance Rome

Shakespeare's Four Roman Plays

Ancient Rome in the Movies