Two primary sources of information provide some interesting background information and are worthreading before a visit to Pompeii. They are Pliny the Younger's two letters (in which he describes the eruption and its aftermath) written to Roman historian Tacitus and a newspaper account of how the first plaster casts were made.
Pliny the Younger Letters to Tacitus
My uncle was stationed at Misenum in active command of the fleet. The ninth day before the Calends of September [24 August], in the early afternoon, my mother drew to his attention a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, eaten a light lunch while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place that would give him the best view of the phenomenon. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterward known to be Vesuvius). Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upward by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it. My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.
As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Cascus, whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.
He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them. 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: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for the home of Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves around a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell. The wind was of course full in my uncle's favor, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom. After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.
Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.
Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door. By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, came out, and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household, who had stayed up all night. They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.
Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamps. My uncle decided to go down to the shore, to see at first hand whether it was possible to escape by sea; but they found the waves still wild and dangerous. There a sheet was spread on the ground for my uncle to lie down, and he called repeatedly for cold water, which he drank. Then the flames and smell of sulfur which heralded the approaching fire drove the others to take flight. Aroused, my uncle struggled to his feet, leaning on two slaves, but immediately collapsed. I assume that his breathing was impeded by the dense fumes, which blocked his windpipe— for it was constitutionally weak and narrow, and often inflamed. When daylight returned—two days after the last time he had seen it—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed as in life. He looked more like a man sleeping than a dead man.
You tell me that the letter in which, at your request, I described the death of my uncle has made you want to know what fears and even what dangers I myself experienced, having been left behind at Misenum (in fact, I had reached this point when I interrupted myself). Although I tremble at the very memory, I will begin.
After my uncle's departure, I gave the rest of the day to study—the object which had kept me at home. Afterward I bathed, dined, and retired to short and broken sleep. For several days we had experienced earth shocks, which hardly alarmed us as they are frequent in Campania. But that night they became so violent that it seemed the world was not only being shaken, but turned upside down. My mother rushed to my bedroom—I was just rising, as I intended to wake her if she was asleep. We sat down in the courtyard of the house, which separated it by a short distance from the sea. Whether from courage or inexperience (I was eighteen at the time), I called for a volume of Titus Livius and began to read, and even continued my notations from it, as if nothing were the matter. At this moment a friend of my uncle's arrived; he had just returned from Spain to see him. When he saw me sitting there, with my mother, when he saw me reading, he criticized me for my passivity and lack of concern; I continued to pay just as much enthusiastic attention to my book.
Though it was the first hour of the day, the light appeared to us still faint and uncertain. And though we were in an open place, it was narrow, and the buildings around us were so unsettled that the collapse of walls seemed a certainty. We decided to get out of town to escape this menace. The panic-stricken crowds followed us, in response to that instinct of fear which causes people to follow where others lead. In a long close tide they harassed and jostled us. When we were clear of the houses, we stopped, as we encountered fresh prodigies and terrors. Though our carts were on level ground, they were tossed about in every direction, and even when weighted with stones could not be kept steady. The sea appeared to have shrunk, as if withdrawn by the tremors of the earth. In any event, the shore had widened, and many sea creatures were beached on the sand. In the other direction loomed a horrible black cloud ripped by sudden bursts of fire, writhing snakelike and revealing sudden flashes larger than lightning.
Then my uncle's friend from Spain began to argue with great energy and urgency. "If your brother," he said, "if your uncle is alive, he would want you to be saved; if he has perished, he would have wanted you to survive. Why, then, do you delay your escape?" We replied that we could not think of our own safety before finding out what had happened to him. Without a moment's further delay, he left us abruptly and escaped the danger in a frantic headlong rush. Soon after, the cloud began to descend upon the earth and cover the sea. It had already surrounded and obscured Capreae [Capri], and blotted out Cape Misenum. My mother now began to beg, urge, and command me to escape as best I could. A young man could do it; she, burdened with age and corpulence, would die easy if only she had not caused my death. I replied that I would not be saved without her. Taking her hand, I hurried her along. She complied reluctantly, and not without self-reproach for hindering me.
And now came the ashes, but at first sparsely. I turned around. Behind us, an ominous thick smoke, spreading over the earth like a flood, followed us. "Let's go into the fields while we can still see the way," I told my mother— for I was afraid that we might be crushed by the mob on the road in the midst of the darkness. We had scarcely agreed when we were enveloped in night—not a moonless night or one dimmed by cloud, but the darkness of a sealed room without lights. To be heard were only the shrill cries of women, the wailing of children, the shouting of men. Some were calling to their parents, others to their children, others to their wives—knowing one another only by voice. Some wept for themselves, others for their relations. There were those who, in their very fear of death, invoked it. Many lifted up their hands to the gods, but a great number believed there were no gods, and that this was to be the world's last, eternal night. Some added to the real danger with false or illusory terrors: "In Misenum," they would say, "such and such a building has collapsed, and some other is in flames." This might not be true, but it was believed.
A curious brightness revealed itself to us not as daylight but as approaching fire; but it stopped some distance from us. Once more, darkness and ashes, thick and heavy. From time to time we had to get up and shake them off for fear of being actually buried and crushed under their weight. I can boast that in so great a danger, I did not utter a single word or a single lamentation that could have been construed as weakness. I believed that one and all of us would perish—a wretched but strong consolation in my dying. But the darkness lightened, and then like smoke or cloud dissolved away. Finally a genuine daylight came; the sun shone, but pallidly, as in an eclipse. And then, before our terror-stricken gaze everything appeared changed— covered by a thick layer of ashes like an abundant snowfall.
We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as best we could. We passed an anxious night between hope and fear—though chiefly the latter, for the earthquakes continued, and some pessimistic people were giving a ghoulish turn to their own and their neighbors' calamities by horrifying predictions. Even so, my mother and I—despite the danger we had experienced and the danger which still threatened—had no thought of leaving until we should receive some word of my uncle.
Such were the events; and you will read about them without the slightest intention of including the information in your works, as they are unworthy of history.... Adieu!
An account about making plaster casts, from The Times (London), 17 June 1893
There are now boulevards around Pompeii, and a road is being made for the carts which convey the rubbish in the direction of the Amphitheatre. From the top of those boulevards the visitor has a view of the whole city, and can form a tolerably correct idea of the interior of the houses uncovered. Excavations are now going on in two eminences near the Temple of Isis, and the house called Abbondonza. Our inspection was chiefly confined to the former site, where, in a house situated in a narrow street recently opened, we saw several bodies, or rather forms of bodies, which now attract universal attention. The unfortunate inhabitants of this house fell, not on the bare ground, but on heaps of pumice stones, and were covered to a great depth by torrents of ashes and scoria, under which they have lain for nearly 2,000 years.
One day, inside a house, amid fallen roofs and ashes, the outline of a human body was perceived, and M. Fiorelli, the chief of the works for excavation, soon ascertained that there was a hollow under the surface. He accordingly made a small hole through its covering, and filled it up with liquid plaster of Paris, as if it were a mould. The result was that he obtained a complete plaster statue of a Roman lady of the first century of the Christian era. Close by were found the remains of a man, another woman, and a girl, with 91 pieces of silver money; four earrings and a finger-ring, all gold; two iron keys, and evident remains of a linen bag or purse. The whole of those bodies have been carefully molded in plaster. The first body discovered was a woman lying on her right side, with her limbs contracted, as if she had died in convulsions. The form of the head-dress and the hair are quite distinct. On the bone of the little finger were two silver rings, and with this body were the remains of the purse above mentioned with the money and keys. The girl was found in an adjoining room, and the plaster mould taken of the cavity clearly shows the tissue of her dress. By her side lay an elderly woman, who had an iron ring on her little finger. The last personage I shall describe was a tall, well-made man, lying full length. The plaster distinctly shows his form, the folds of his garment, his torn sandals, his beard and hair. I contemplated these human forms with an interest which defies expression. It is evidence that all these unfortunates had made great efforts to escape destruction. The man appears to have perished in a vain attempt to rescue the terrified women, who thought they could be nowhere so safe as in their own home, and hoped that the fiery tempest would soon cease. From the money and the keys found with the body of the first woman, she was probably the mistress of the house and the mother of the girl. The slender bones of her arms and legs and the richness of her head-dress seem to indicate a woman of noble race.
From the manner in which her hands were clenched she evidently died in great pain. The girl does not appear to have suffered much. From the appearance of the plaster mould it would seem that she fell from terror, as she was running with her skirts pulled over her head. The other woman, from the largeness of her ear, which is well shown by the plaster, and the iron ring on her finger, evidently belonged to a lower class, and was probably a servant of the family. The man appears to have been struck by lightning, for his straightened limbs show no signs of a death struggle.
It is impossible to imagine a more affecting scene than the one suggested by these silent figures; nor have I ever heard of a drama so heartrending as the story of this family of the last days of Pompeii.