“My Uncle was stationed at Misenum in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upward by the first blast…. in places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.”
This was the description by Pliny the Younger of the opening moments of the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius which occurred on today’s date, August 24, in the year 79 AD. Pliny would go on to become a great lawyer, author and magistrate of ancient Rome, but at the time of the eruption he was a mere 18 years old. Hundreds of his letters have survived to the present day, but it is the two letters which he wrote to the historian Tacitus in which he described the holocaust wrought by the explosion of Vesuvius upon the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in great and sometimes dramatic detail that have proven to be the most memorable of his many writings.
Vesuvius – Not So Dormant Afterall….
After lying dormant for centuries, Mount Vesuvius erupted in southern Italy, destroying the prosperous and rich Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and claiming many thousands of victims. The cities were buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash and mud, and were never rebuilt. They wound up being mostly forgotten with the passage of time. But during the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, providing an incomparable archaeological record of day to day life in an ancient civilization, dramatically preserved at the moment of sudden death.
Pompeii – A Prosperous Home For the Roman Glitterati
The ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum thrived at the base of Mount Vesuvius at the Bay of Naples. At this point in the relatively early days of the Roman Empire, some 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, including merchants, manufacturers, and farmers who farmed the rich soil of the region with countless vineyards and orchards. Few of these prosperous Roman citizens suspected that the black fertile earth was the legacy of earlier eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was a city of 5,000 and a favorite summer retreat for rich Romans, many of whom kept their finest summer villas there. Gambling artifacts found in Herculaneum and a brothel excavated in Pompeii make clear the Las Vegas-like stature of the cities. There were also some smaller resort towns and communities in the region too, such as the quiet little town of Stabiae.
Pliny the Elder Races to the Rescue
Pliny’s Uncle, Pliny the Elder, raced to the aid of his fellow Roman citizens in one of his galleys, but found the scene a very dangerous one indeed:
“He was now so nigh the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the vessel, together with pumice-stones and pieces of burning rock; and now the sudden ebb of the sea, and vast fragments rolling from the mountain, obstructed their nearer approach to the shore. Pausing to consider whether he should turn back again to which he was advised by his pilot, he exclaimed ‘Fortune befriends the brave: carry me to Pomponianus!’” Pliny the Elder found his friend Pomponianus at Stabiae, and was able to rescue him, but Vesuvius kept on quite literally blowing it’s top off: “Meanwhile the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius broke forth in several places with great violence, and the darkness of the night contributed to render it still more visible and dreadful.”
Mount Vesuvius Buries Thousands
Mount Vesuvius blew her top, sending a mushroom cloud of ash and pumice rocketing 10 miles into the air. For some 12 hours, volcanic ash and a shower of pumice stones up to 3 inches in diameter rained down upon Pompeii, obliging the terrified populace to flee enmasse. Still, about 2,000 people remained in Pompeii, huddled in their cellars or in stone structures, hoping to wait out the eruption. A wind out of the west shielded Herculaneum from the first stages of the blast, until a giant cloud of hot ash and gas came running down the western face of Vesuvius, swallowing the city whole and burning or asphyxiating all of those pitiful wretches who remained. This murderous cloud carried a flood of volcanic mud and rock in its wake which buried the city. Those who were still in Pompeii were greeted on the morning of August 25 with a lethal cloud of toxic gas which poured into the city, and brutally snuffed out all who were still present. A river of rock and ash followed, caving roofs in, and smashing walls, burying the dead.
The Petrified Remains of the Roman Citizenry Are Unearthed
Pliny the Younger’s description has the eruption lasting about 18 hours. Pompeii was buried under 14 to 17 feet volcanic material, and Herculaneum under 60 ft. of mud. Over time the site was forgotten and the coast line changed. In the 18’th century a well digger uncovered a marble statue, and the digging eventually caught on in subsequent years, and has gone on until the present day. The remains of 2,000 men, women, and children were unearthed at Pompeii. After suffocating, their bodies were encased ash which hardened and preserved the outline of their bodies. Their bodies subsequently decomposed to skeletal remains, with a sort of plaster mold being left behind. Archaeologists finding these molds filled the hollows with plaster, revealing in graphic detail the death throes of the victims of Vesuvius (above). The region was effectively frozen in time, and ordinary objects that telling the story of everyday life in Pompeii are of incalculable value to archaeologists. Jugs and jars containing eatable figs, and drinkable wine were discovered, having been hermetically sealed for centuries. Carbonized loaves of bread, vases with olives still swimming in oil, fruits retaining their flavor were found. Also people – a high priest at his dinner table, a woman shielding her young daughter were excavated. Literally a city along with its inhabitants was taken at their last moments on earth.
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“Eyewitness to History” Edited by John Carrey, Avon Books, New York, 1987.
“Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present“ by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1977.