Viral Photo of Pompeii Victim in a Compromising Position Explained

By | July 9, 2017

A photo of an ancient volcano victim has been making the rounds online; the victim was immortalized with his hands in a compromising position, calling to attention a rarely considered question: Can people masturbate during a volcanic eruption?

Earth’s explosive volcanoes can unleash 1,500-degree avalanches of scorching gas and rocks, demolishing everything in their path. During these violent natural events, called pyroclastic flows, people don’t masturbate because they simply can’t. Instead, they quickly asphyxiate, cook to death, and die, as did the Pompeiian man in the photo below who some think may have been indulging himself during the historic Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D.

“There is no way to demonstrate any ‘masturbating man,’ and it is out of place to discuss such an affirmation (I hope a joke, however bad) of some young time waster,” University of Naples Federico II volcanologist Pier Paolo Petrone, Ph.D., who has studied Mt. Vesuvius for decades, said.

“The individual in the photo is an adult man, killed by the hot gas and ash cloud which killed most of the population in Pompeii, with both arms and legs flexed due to the heat."

Some volcanoes, like Hawaii’s gentle lava-gushers, don’t erupt violently unlike the infamous Mount Vesuvius, which contains a thick, viscous magma that holds in hundreds to thousands of years’ worth of bubbling heat and pressure.

Before the main eruption, the volcano trembles, sending earthquakes through nearby areas some five to seven days in advance. Then comes the pressure release, wherein a colossal column of ash, gas, and rock is blasted high into the atmosphere. The heavier elements of this ash cloud collapse into a pyroclastic flow, which in 79 A.D. buried a number of cities in the usually tranquil Bay of Naples, most famously Pompeii.

Nearly 2,000 years later, archaeologists find hollow spaces in the layers of volcanic ash and rock that buried the city of Pompeii. When plaster is poured into hollow holes and the ash around it is chiseled away, human and animal forms in their last throes of life are formed. Their bodies decayed, leaving hollow molds of people cowering in hallways, praying, gripping each other, and, in the case of dogs, trying to break free from their chains.

But no one is masturbating.


A Pompeii man crawling before he was buried by Vesuvius's volcanic ash.

While it’s abundantly clear that a pyroclastic avalanche entombed the people of Pompeii, the precise cause of their prompt death is still being debated, although the options are few. One theory suggests Vesuvius’s heated gases could have swept through the city’s doors and windows, causing people to suffocate before another flow of super-heated rock and ash engulfed their bodies. Another theory proposes that the blazing hot ash and gas, with temperatures exceeding 500 degrees Fahrenheit, quickly killed. Such heat would have sizzled their skin and cooked their organs, which is why most of the figures are found in withering, contorted postures.

In either case — asphyxiation or being melted by volcanic ash — there is little chance that any person would have the ability to masturbate while being destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius’s fiery wrath.

A Roman dog withers in its last throes of life.

h/t Snopes