If you were acutely aware that you had just hours to live and that you and everyone you knew were about to be incinerated in an apocalyptic rain of fire and ash, what would you do? What would be your final act on Earth? Well, apparently, it’s all a matter of priorities.
Hypothetically speaking, death ought, perhaps, to bring a special clarity to our final moments, revealing what it is that’s truly important to us. With just minutes to spare, then, wouldn’t the priority be to grasp at the most important thing and hold on to the bitter end?
Of course, though, the truth is that imminent death doesn’t necessarily give us particular psychological clarity. People behave irrationally during disasters. They fall to pieces. And sometimes they grasp at inappropriate things. Then again, some people really do have different priorities.
An alleged case in point is one unfortunate man who perished in the Roman city of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79 CE. One of thousands of victims, the man was buried under a blanket of pumice and ash. Over time, his body then petrified, his last moments frozen in stone for a future civilization to scrutinize.
Specifically, the man came to the attention of internet users after the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii posted a photo of his body on its Instagram page on June 9, 2017. Unfortunately, however, the image appeared to expose the victim’s moment of death all too clearly.
You see, the photo appeared to show the man lying on his back, masturbating. But the question is “why?” Was this a final act of grubby self-indulgence? Or was it an expression of irrational panic? Unfortunately, the man cannot be identified – but he almost appears to be smiling.
Naturally, then, the photo went viral. Tweets were posted, quips were cracked, and it even drew the attention of the BBC. One tweet by @andredoesthings, which garnered more than 400,000 likes and nearly 200,000 retweets, expressed unashamed admiration for the Pompeiian supposed masturbator.
“This man saw his entire world crumbling to fire and ash and decided to crank one out before facing eternity,” tweeted Andre. “Legend.” And why not? Meanwhile, coming in second – no pun intended – was the following dry tweet by @PersianRose1: “He died holding his loved ones.”
Also worthy of mention was this adoring tweet by @tobasamuels: “He held on till the very end… great man.” And finally, a pun by @ClowerCottage was noteworthy, too: “Talk about fiddlin’ while Rome burns,” she wrote. Indeed, the image of a Pompeiian presumed onanist appears to prove that Emperor Nero wasn’t history’s only ill-fated Roman fiddler.
But beyond the black humor, there remains the serious question of how the doomed man could even have performed for himself on that terrible day. The eruption of Vesuvius is considered one of the most destructive volcanic events in European history. Indeed, it released 100,000 times more thermal energy than the bombings of Hiroshima-Nagasaki.
Small wonder, then, that the only known eyewitness account of the eruption describes a momentously dark event. It was recorded by Pliny the Younger, then aged 17, who was at a safe distance of 19 miles when he saw a tall column rising from Vesuvius. He conveyed his observations to the historian Tacitus.
“I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree,” Pliny wrote. “For it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches… it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders.”
At that time, Pompeii was a relatively large town located close to Mount Vesuvius’ base. It enjoyed fine prosperity thanks to its fertile volcanic soils, and its municipal structures included an amphitheater, a complex irrigation system and a port. Its population, meanwhile, was thought to be around 11,000 – but nature’s destructive force showed those people little mercy.
For several hours after the initial blast, Pompeii was smothered in ash. An evacuation by sea was attempted by Pliny’s uncle, a naval commander with a fleet in a nearby bay. However, at some point in the night, Vesuvius began releasing super-hot clouds of gas and material. These so-called “pyroclastic flows” can reach temperatures of up to 1,830 °F and speeds of 450 mph.
Lights began to appear on the mountain. “Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius,” wrote Pliny. “Their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night… It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
Indeed, recent scientific research suggests that the majority of Pompeiians did not die from ash or gas suffocation, as was once thought, but perished instantly in the searing heat. In fact, a 2010 study indicates that fatal temperatures as high as 482 °F would have been experienced six miles from the flow’s vent.
Unfortunately, this means that our Pompeiian masturbator is almost certainly not what he seems. “There is no way to demonstrate any ‘masturbating man,’” volcanologist Pier Paolo Petrone told The Daily Dot. “And it is out of place to discuss such an affirmation (I hope a joke, however bad) of some young time waster.”
“The individual in the photo is an adult man, killed by the hot pyroclastic surge… with both arms and legs flexed due to the heat,” continued Petrone. “Most of the human victims found in Pompeii often show ‘strange’ position of arms and legs, due to the contraction of limbs as a consequence of the heat effect on their bodies after death occurred.”
This phenomenon is known as “cadaveric spasm,” and it’s the reason why so many of the ancient victims at Pompeii appear to be contorted in agony – or, as in this case, contorted in supposed self-pleasure. So how did so many people get the wrong end of the stick, so to speak?
Well, according to fact-checking website Snopes, the original Instagram post by the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii mentioned nothing about masturbation. Rather, that wrongful interpretation appears to have been made by @PersianRose1, who incorrectly captioned the image, “Masturbating Man, Pompeii, 79 CE.” And the rest, as they say, is history.