Fissure eruptions may provide important information on the shallow propagation of dikes at volcanoes. Somma-Vesuvius (Italy) consists of the active Vesuvius cone, bordered to the north by the remnants of the older Somma edifice. Historical chronicles are considered to define the development of the 37 fissure eruptions between A.D. 1631 and 1944. The 1631 fissure, which reopened the magmatic conduit, migrated upward and was the only one triggered by the subvertical propagation of a dike. The other 25 fissure eruptions migrated downward, when the conduit was open, through the lateral propagation of radial dikes. We suggest two scenarios for the development of the fissures. When the summit conduit is closed, the fissures are fed by vertically propagating dikes. When the summit conduit is open, the fissures are fed by laterally propagating dikes along the volcano slopes. Consistent behaviors are found at other composite volcanoes, suggesting a general application to our model, independent of the tectonic setting and composition of magma. At Vesuvius, the historical data set and our scenarios are used to predict the consequences of the emplacement of fissures after the opening of the conduit. The results suggest that, even though the probability of opening of vents within the inhabited south and west slopes is negligible, the possibility that these are reached by a lava flow remains significant.