Citizens overtaken by the eruption of Vesuvius in ancient Roman times may have adopted a policy of "women and children first", according to new research.
The people of Herculaneum in 79AD may have used the same tactic as the passengers of the Titanic, according to evidence found in "bunkers" where skeletons were found.
A TV documentary examines the aftermath of the disaster which devastated the city and its near neighbour Pompeii, which were preserved under ash for nearly 2,000 years.
Much of the city remains intact today, including the only baby's cradle from the Roman world, buildings higher than two storeys in height, and ornately decorated wooden ceilings, complete with surviving brightly coloured paint.
Forensic analysis on the first new skeletons discovered there for more than 30 years indicate an extremely high quality of life among the poor for ancient times, and a far more dynamic and upwardly mobile society than was previously imagined.
In a project which has lasted 10 years, researchers have looked at remains in the town's sewers and elsewhere to get a better understanding of people's eating habits.
The discoveries, led by Cambridge Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, are to be revealed in a BBC2 documentary The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum to be screened on Monday at 9pm.
Prof Wallace-Hadrill said: "This is a truly extraordinary discovery. Whilst many of us have looked to Pompeii to tell us about life in Ancient Rome, a far richer story can be found 10 miles down the road in Herculaneum. This is an extremely exciting area of exploration for archaeologists, and I believe Herculaneum will continue to unlock many more secrets of life in Ancient Roman times than Pompeii."
In an area famous for its fish cuisine today, even the poorer citizens had a more varied marine diet in 79AD than the people living in the Bay of Naples now, as well as enjoying spices imported from as far afield as India, which remained beyond the budget of the less well off in Britain for another 1700 years.
There is evidence that sophisticated home cooking was an important part of family life among the poorer members of society, challenging the notion that poor Romans did not have kitchens and therefore could not cook at home. And researchers found levels of public cleanliness and hygiene not matched until the 20th Century.