Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A Message of Ancient Days

Understanding Primary Sources:
The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD

Objective: Students read Roman Pliny the Younger's first-person description of the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, and then compare it to a secondary source description of the same event.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
3-4 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
Ask students to define primary and secondary sources. Discuss their answers. Ask students to speculate about the similarities and differences between a primary and a secondary source describing the same event. What might be the same, what might be different? Discuss their answers. Tell students that in 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted quite suddenly and buried two Roman towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum. A Roman named Pliny the Younger witnessed the event and described it in a letter to a Roman historian. In the 1800s, the two buried towns were rediscovered and have been excavated and studied ever since. Tell students they will read Pliny's account of the eruption and descriptions written much later to compare primary and secondary sources.

What To Do:

1. Distribute a copy of Pliny's description to each student. One possible source is Letters of the Younger Pliny, translated by Betty Radice. Another source is the Classics 36: Pompeii and Herculaneum (http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/) Internet site, which contains Pliny Epistle 6.20 — his description of the eruption.

2. Have students read Pliny's description carefully and fill out the top part of the worksheet. Encourage them to identify specific words and phrases which they feel communicate the experience.

3. Send students to the library to research secondary source descriptions of the eruption. One source is Pompeii: The Day a City Was Buried, by Christopher and Melinda Rice. The Unit 6 Bibliography also has a list of books which might be useful. If you have Internet access, students can explore this site for information:

Vesuvius, Italy

This site has a good description of both the years leading up the eruption, and the disaster itself. It also has links to a map and pictures of the archaeological site today.

4. As students research the secondary source descriptions, remind them to fill out the bottom part of the Comparing Descriptions worksheet. Encourage them to again identify specific words and phrases which they feel communicates the experience.

5. When students have completed their research, discuss the similarities and differences they found between the two sources. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? What could Pliny tell us that the secondary sources could not? What could the secondary sources tell us that Pliny could not? Ask students to speculate about when and why a historian would use each source and for what purposes.

Ask student to think about what they would know about the Mt. Vesuvius eruption if: they read only Pliny's description; they read only a secondary source description: or if they combined the two descriptions. What are the advantages of using both? Discuss.


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