Latin Learning Scenario:

Authors: Randy Thompson & Laura Veal
Level: Novice

In this scenario students investigate the eruption of Mount Vesuvius by reading eyewitness accounts and archaeological presentations. From the evidence they develop chronologies, reconstruct the final moments of Herculaneum and Pompeii and of individual victims, survey the variety of physical remains of the cities and historic conclusions that can be drawn. Students learn enough about the events of A.D. 79 and their archaeological recovery that they are able to put themselves into a fictional account of the experience. As a context for their research, students are given the following situations from which they choose one:

  1. You are an eyewitness to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Assume the persona of a Roman—wealthy, poor, merchant, laborer, soldier, slave, visitor—and describe your firsthand experiences and those of your family, friends, or other residents between August 24th and 25th, A.D. 79. Remind students that if they are a sailor on Plinys’ boat, a civic leader, or a Pompeian slave-girl, for example, they cannot discuss the eruption with the terminology or the cold scientific understanding of a modern archaeologist—especially when friends, family and country are involved! Furthermore, the persona that the student assumes does not have to have survived the experience.
  2. The funding committee sponsoring your archaeological dig in the Vesuvius area is meeting next month to decide whether or not to continue support for your dig. Write a letter to the committee explaining exactly what your dig is uncovering. Convince the committee of the value and necessity of the work; urge the committee to extend the dig’s funding by revealing some of the valuable conclusions you are now able to make about Roman life.

These assignments are intended to provide students an opportunity to creatively interweave factual details into a cohesive, compelling, and credible essay and not simply retell or summarize a story in the sources.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Comparing Vesuvius with Modern-Day Experiences
There are several preliminary activities to help students organize the upcoming material. First, odds are that several students in the class will have experienced disasters—earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, etc. Those students who wish to share their stories do so. Hearing personal experiences peaks interest and helps the class keep in mind that, although Vesuvius is a goldmine for scientists and archaeologists, it is fundamentally a human tragedy. This fact is reinforced with clips of Mount St. Helens or other modern eruptions, if available. Secondly, to consolidate the wide variety of material they will be exposed to and as a reminder to take notes throughout the remaining activities, students label a page in their notebook, “Terminology and Who’s Who.” Thirdly, students receive a blank map of the Bay of Naples to label, including Misenum (where Pliny the Elder is stationed as admiral of Rome’s naval fleet), Puteoli (the main commercial harbor and focus of one of the videos), Neapolis, Herculaneum, Mons Vesuvius, Pompeii, Stabiae (where Pliny the Elder ends up), and Capreae/Capri. The May 1984 issue of National Geographic contains a great bird’s eye map of the area, photocopies of which are provided to students who work in groups to quickly label their maps. (Students can also complete their maps by following along as the teacher labels a transparency on the overhead projector if the magazine article is unavailable.) To check for accuracy and to reinforce what was learned, the teacher wraps up with a quick drill of place names.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Eyewitness Account of Pliny the Younger
Next the students work in small groups to create a chronology of the events of the eruption based on a reading of Pliny the Younger’s account of his famous uncle’s death in the eruption. Students are provided a simple guide outlining the major events they should focus on: August 24th—in the morning, at 1:00 PM, 4:00 PM, and 11:00 PM; August 25th—at midnight, at 6:00 AM, etc. (The class should not think that the chronology will be completed from Pliny alone; other experts will fill in some of the gaps.) As remarkable as a surviving eyewitness account is, it still needs introduction since Pliny was about the students’ age when the eruption occurred, and he is generally unknown to students. They take turns in their groups reading the story as they begin the chronology and track the activities of both Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger on the map. In a personal journal entry, students react to either of the Pliny’s experiences, write about what they think it must have been like, or note peoples’ reactions in the crisis. Alternatively, students can write about their own experience during a crisis, focusing especially on the unusual ways people reacted.

ACTIVITY SET 3: Studying the Site of the Disaster
After a quick review of the Bay of Naples map, students get in groups to focus more closely on the site of the disaster. They receive street maps of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Next, they draw a Venn diagram labeling one side “Pompeii,” the other “Herculaneum.” Each group gets at least one photocopy of the three National Geographics and other miscellaneous materials on Vesuvius that might be helpful. However, the focus remains on the articles, which cover making plaster casts in Pompeii, examinations of skeletons in Herculaneum, unique discoveries, and last moments. Groups label their diagrams with items pertaining to one city, the other, or both. The groups decide how to share what they’ve learned from the articles, or the teacher can prescribe a rotation, etc.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Flash Cards
From the responses on students’ Venn diagrams, a variety of additional activities for reviewing learned material may be constructed to use as students prepare for their test on Vesuvius and their response to the initial assignment. For example, each student receives several 3x5 cards. On one side they write the name of a significant or unique discovery or event from Pompeii or Herculaneum from their Venn diagrams (boat, amphitheater, ashfall, skeletons, beachfront villas, etc.). On the other side of the card they write a big P or H. These flash cards are shuffled among the group and used for a quick review associating events, items and places. The idea can be expanded to include additional learned material to the mix: P & H for items found in both Pompeii and Herculaneum; events and discoveries from the cities of Misenum and Stabiae; the activities of the two Plinys, etc. Alternatively, the cards can be fill-in-the-blank: Pliny the Elder dies at ___, and so forth. Groups work first with the cards they have created then trade with other groups. After a few years, the teacher has quite a collection and can use these for “Jeopardy” questions or certamen rounds.

Finally, after reviewing with flash cards, students watch one of the two videos on the eruption of Vesuvius, which recycles and visually depicts most of what the students have been investigating. The class also benefits from slides or other materials that briefly review other topics such as geography, art (friezes, frescoes, mosaics and statuary), city features (major homes, streets scenes, forum, theaters, arena), individuals, daily life revealed in kitchens, taverns, lofts and the wealth of minute treasures that make these ancient lives come to life.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Putting it All Together
Students understanding of the topic is assessed in two ways. The culminating product is one of the two essays mentioned at the beginning of the scenario. Variations on those assignments provide students an opportunity to showcase other talents as well. For some students, a dramatic reading—eagerly anticipated and widely enjoyed by classmates—offers an opportunity to display their presentational skills. Small groups of students may be allowed to present their eyewitness account through a skit. The eyewitness accounts can be done on authentic looking “scrolls.” A young archaeologist promoting the dig may want to combine the two assignments by being the discoverer of the witness’ scroll and using it in his or her pitch to the funding committee. Students may also create display boards to illustrate the categories and richness of their exciting new “discoveries” as they make their presentation. The class, forming the funding committee, can vote for the top (or top three) archaeologists making the most knowledgeable, compelling presentations, with the top vote-getters receive various rewards (as the rest of the rankings remain anonymous, of course).

Students are also tested over the materials learned but in ways that require the use of higher order thinking skills, reflecting the way the students have been preparing. Discrete items are not ignored, but more open-ended questions requiring evaluation, analysis, and synthesis are also needed. For example, students describe the kinds of information gained from studying Roman skeletons, discuss how experts in three or more scientific fields collaborated in a Vesuvius excavation, or address how geology shaped the history of the Bay of Naples area (from farming to tourism). Students draw on the wealth of their investigations to respond to these questions.

Click to go up

Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives, Products & Perspectives
  • Connections: Access to Information, Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Concept of Culture, Influence of Language & Culture
  • Communities: Personal Enrichment & Career Development

Click to go up


  • A translation of Pliny the Younger’s two letters to Tacitus about the eruption
  • One of the following videos: In the Shadow of Vesuvius or Deadly Shadow of Vesuvius
  • Maps of the Bay of Naples, Pompeii, and Herculaneum (two of the three cities destroyed by Vesuvius)
  • Several photocopies of three National Geographic magazines: November 1961, December 1982, and May 1984
  • Miscellaneous books or slides on Vesuvius

Click to go up

Reflections on How the Standards Are Met


Communication: Students use interpersonal mode in group work and practice activities, interpretive mode as they read the story of Pliny the Younger and articles on the eruption, and presentational mode for the final project or paper.

Cultures: Students learn about practices and perspectives and products and perspectives of Imperial Rome as they read about the eruption of Vesuvius and its aftermath. The eyewitness account provides a “native speaker” perspective on the events.

Connections: Students use resources including technology to gain access to information, and they connect to other subject areas such as art and archaeology.

Communities: Students share with the teacher and classmates any interesting information they’ve uncovered on their own (outside of class assignments) related to the topic.

Click to go up

Expansion Ideas

  • Much has happened since the National Geographic society visited Vesuvius: the Herculanean museum was robbed, population estimates have been dramatically revised, Caecilius’ frieze of the earthquake of A.D. 62 was swiped, several major books have been published, to name a few. Students may want to investigate further and update the class on how the work has progressed.
  • Because the destruction by Vesuvius can be a moving study, some students might be inspired to write poetry.
  • As a group project, students produce the nightly news flash on the eruption, including cuts to reporters and interviews, or perhaps a live feed to the ever-confident Pliny: “Back to you, Marcus.”
  • Advanced students read Pliny’s letters in Latin and write an up-to-date translation with explanatory notes and illustrations for beginning students.
  • Students find examples of survivor stories that parallel the Vesuvius eruption of A.D. 79. Famous examples include Jack London’s account of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Shackleton’s trek to the South Pole.
  • For students who are artistically inclined, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Stabiae, and the whole Vesuvius story lend themselves very well to illustration. Students can also critique the various famous paintings of the event for factual accuracy and compare them to their own vision of events. For tactile learners, there are any number of opportunities for building models such as oil lamps, temples, painted vases and amphorae, a terrarium in the form of a Pompeian garden, hypocaust, various road and building construction, dioramas, frescoes, etc.
  • Students depict the chronology of the archaeology of the Vesuvius sites, from the accidental discoveries of 1750’s and the pillaging before the birth of archaeology in the 1860’s to the more scientific recoveries and preservation of recent decades. Four or five well-chosen interviews would also make a good “documentary,” à la Ken Burns.
  • Pompeii had a history of strongly civic-minded leadership, experienced in disaster management after the devastating earthquake 17 years earlier. For instance, L. Richardson suggests that the palaestra at the Large Theater was one of the collection points organized for rescuing citizens as transportation became available. In fact most scholars believe most Pompeians escaped. Students can fill in the many hours between the first evidence of the eruption and the point at which there is no escape, by creating and implementing an emergency plan, or writing the journal of a person who takes charge of the rescue efforts.

Click to go up



Andrews, I. (1978). Pompeii. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Connolly, P. (1979). Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deiss, J. (1989). Herculaneum: Italy’s buried treasure. New York: J Paul Getty Museum Publications.

Nappo, S. (1998). Pompeii. New York: Barnes & Noble.

National Geographic Magazine: November 1961, December 1982, May 1984.

Richardson, L. (1988). Pompeii: An architectural history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Bisel, S. (1990). The secrets of Vesuvius. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Trevelyan, R. (1976). The shadow of Vesuvius. London: Michael Joseph Ltd.

Zanker, P. (1998). Pompeii: Public and private life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


  • Deadly Shadow of Vesuvius. (1998). Nova Video Library.
  • In the Shadow of Vesuvius. (1987). National Geographic Society.


NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.