“Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; 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.”
“I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree; 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. …Occasionally it was brighter, occasionally darker and spotted, as it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders.”
Pliny the Younger, August 79 AD
These are the writings of the young Roman Pliny the Younger as he described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the City of Pompeii as he watched from across the Bay of Naples. Pliny’s is the only recorded account of what occurred during those 24 hours of horror and suffering by the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum in August of 79 AD.
Welcome to my first posting of 2018, with this post I’ll return to our 2015 trip to Italy.
When my wife and I were planning this trip visiting Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius was a must for me. Vesuvius and Pompeii had been on my bucket list ever since I saw the 1959 movie “The Last Days of Pompeii.” It was also that movie that gave me the deep interest in volcanos. Now, as our tour bus left Rome, I was excited that soon another one of my life’s dreams would be fulfilled. So as we motor down to one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites I’ll give you a brief history of Pompeii, and the Volcano that froze it in time.
The story of Pompeii’s eventual fate actually began seventeen years before the 79 AD eruption. On February 5, 62 AD a massive earthquake struck the region around the Bay of Naples, where Pompeii and Herculaneum were located. This earthquake caused severe damage in both cities. What the citizens didn’t know was that the earthquake was caused by magma moving up deep inside of Mt. Vesuvius. Earthquakes were fairly common in Italy, and the large gray Mt. Vesuvius seemed to be nothing more than just another mountain. Since Vesuvius hadn’t erupted in centuries most had forgotten that it was a volcano. They also didn’t know that the low hills that ringed Vesuvius were the remains of a much larger prehistoric volcano, and that the 4,000 foot Vesuvius was actually a new cone that had built up in its caldera.
On the hot afternoon of August 24, 79 AD the citizens felt continued earthquakes and heard loud rumblings coming from the mountain. This was followed by flames leaping out of its summit craters, Vesuvius had two. Soon a large column of thick black smoke shot up, to what is believed to have been 20 miles into the stratosphere. This column of smoke had a particular shape described by Pliny the Younger as, ““I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a (Mediterranean) pine tree.” Today volcanologists refer to these types of eruptions as “Plinian,” after Pliny.
The citizens watched the mountain in amazement, but soon it began to rain down ash and pumice onto the city. At that point some decided to leave, but sadly many chose to stay and ride it out.
As the day wore on the eruptive blasts became more and more intense, and more and more ash rained down causing those that stayed to panic. They began collecting their belongings to leave, but for many it was too late. The heavy ash had now gotten so deep that the roofs of some of the homes began to collapse, and it was now so thick that it was hard to see and to breathe.
At around midnight the amount of materials, called tephra, within the bellowing cloud caused it to collapse releasing the first of the pyroclastic surges. Pyroclastic surges are a ground hugging fluidized mass of gas and rock that travels down the sides of volcanos at several hundred miles per hour, and with temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The first surge engulfed the city of Herculaneum, but Pompeii didn’t stay lucky for long. Throughout the night new columns of tephra would shoot up out of the craters, and then collapse into another pyroclastic surge. Scientists estimate that there may have been as many as six pyroclastic surges that horrible night. Now Pompeii was also encased in super-heated mud and gases. This is what killed those that stayed too long, no one could have survived.
As morning came Vesuvius had quieted, leaving behind an unearthly smoldering gray landscape. All traces of Pompeii and Herculaneum had been erased under one and a half millions tons of volcanic material. Although no one knows for sure how many were killed in the eruption it is believed to have been around 2,000, or 13% of the city’s population. Herculaneum suffered fewer losses due to its lesser population, and that most had left when the eruption started.
Over the weeks that followed some came back looking for family members to no avail. In most cases when a disaster hits people soon come back and rebuild, but not so with Pompeii and Herculaneum. So traumatic was this event, and the fact that the cities were buried under 14 to 17 feet of ash and pumice, Pompeii and Herculaneum were never rebuilt, and were soon forgotten.
The popular story is that Pompeii lay hidden and unknown until the 18th century, however this is incorrect. Archaeologists have found signs of looters digging tunnels into the buried houses looking for buried riches. Officially Pompeii was lost for 1,500 years when it was rediscovered in 1599. But it wasn’t until 150 years later that any serious excavations began. This was done by the Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in 1748. Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738.
Arriving at the archaeological site we exited our bus and followed our guide into the unearthed Roman city. As we entered I looked up to see houses sitting above us, this gave me a good perspective as to how deep Pompeii had been buried.
As you walk amongst the ruins you get a true snapshot into the lives of first century Romans. As you walk along the streets you can see the worn groves made by chariots and wagons, take a drink from a Roman fountain, and see the temples where Romans worshiped their gods. Inside the houses are colorful frescos and walls paintings. This was the life of people in a great city more than 2,000 years ago.
For over the 250 years Pompeii has been a major tourist destination of Italy. It is estimated that over 2.6 million visitors per year visit this ancient city. This has caused many problems connected to large volumes of tourists crowded into such a fragile site. Hoping to reduce the number of visitors to Pompeii the governing body has expanded the use of entry tickets to include Herculaneum and the town of Stabiae, and Villa Poppaesa, which were also buried in the 79 AD eruption.
The masses of tourists is but one of the problems facing Pompeii’s future. For 2,000 years the volcanic materials of Mt. Vesuvius had protected the building and art of this ancient city from the elements. Sealing out air and moisture let its buried objects remain preserved. But once exposed they now became subject to wind, rain, light exposure, erosion, plants, and animals that’s been causing rapidly deterioration.
Many of the building at Pompeii have started to fall apart, or even collapse. I could see the efforts of trying to preserve this treasure, with houses and temples closed, and supports holding up walls. We can only hope that Pompeii can be saved.
All funding today is directed at trying to preserving this site. But it’s estimated that over 355 million US dollars is needed to just stabilize the two-thirds of the city that’s already been excavated. UNESCO in 2013 declared that if preservation work had not progressed Pompeii would be listed as in danger.
The Sleeping Giant
As I stood in the Forum of Pompeii looking at Vesuvius 5 miles in the distance I couldn’t help but think that modern Italians have fallen into the same complacent bliss with this fire mountain as did the ancient Romans of Pompeii. There are over 3 million people living within 20 miles of the mountain, and all are in danger from another eruption as big as the one in 79 AD. Volcanologists say that it’s not if, but when she awakes.
But because Vesuvius hasn’t stirred in recent history (the last eruption was in 1944) they don’t seem to fear her. However Mt. Vesuvius is a proven killer, but yet she’s is a beautiful killer.