Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

The day had begun normally in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city. Citizens gathered in the forum to debate politics and business while stores were open and marketplaces were bustling. Even though the city had been shaken by an earthquake 17 years prior, the ever-increasing populace had little reason for alarm as they went about their everyday lives. The city’s prosperity was attributable to the city-wide renovations financed by investment capital. This Roman metropolis appeared to have a bright future.

The 15,000 inhabitants of Pompeii could not have imagined the horrible hand that fate was about to strike their beloved city that day in their worst dreams. Near the Campania area of Italy, in the Bay of Naples, the inhabitants of this region lived in the shadow of a sleeping volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The Romans knew it was a volcano but were unaware of its deadly potential. They fatally assumed the species was extinct. The disastrous events of August 24, 79 AD would prove this idea false.

Four days before that fatal day, the local communities had been experiencing more frequent minor earthquakes. The warning indicators were present, but the Romans in this region were accustomed to seismic activity of this magnitude. According to Pliny the Younger, the sole eyewitness who left a written record of the events, such mild earth tremors were common in Campania. On this particular occasion, though, they symbolized something far more ominous; the sleeping monster was awakening.

Soon, the pressure produced by the molten rock beneath the volcano would be so great that it would have no choice but to erupt. Mount Vesuvius signaled its waking with a strong explosion at 1 p.m. on August 24.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius

A massive dark cloud covered the azure sky above the volcano with its shadow. The column of volcanic pumice, hot gases, and ash blasted upwards of 9 miles into the atmosphere and stretched over the horizon like ink on blotting paper. Pliny compared its general look to an umbrella pine because it grew to a considerable height on a type of trunk and then branched out.

Every second, one and a half million tonnes of volcanic debris erupted from the roaring giant’s hot core and into the stratosphere. Mount Vesuvius emitted more than one hundred thousand times the heat energy of the two atomic bombs detonated on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japanese cities during World War II.

The black cloud traveled the five-mile distance to Pompeii in short order. As molten lava, pumice stone, and scorching ash descended from the sky, the city was quickly surrounded by darkness. Others escaped into the adjacent countryside, while others went towards the ocean. Many resorted to staying inside their homes in a futile effort to weather the storm. At this point, the flat roofs of buildings and residences began to fall beneath the weight of ash and volcanic material, crushing the poor individuals who resided within their walls. Falling rocks killed many individuals. Gradually, ash and debris covered the city to about 10 meters.

Despite being 3 miles closer to Mount Vesuvius than Pompeii, the little rich beach town of Herculaneum could avoid most of the ash and pumice fall from the initial eruption due to the prevailing winds sweeping the volcanic cloud toward Pompeii and the surrounding region. However, the catastrophic spectacle unfolding before them sufficiently induced the bulk of Herculaneum’s residents to abandon their city, and they were prudent, as Mount Vesuvius was not yet finished erupting.

Twelve hours after the volcano erupted, at 1 a.m., the eruption entered its second and most fatal phase. The debris and gas column reached a height of approximately 20 miles and began to disintegrate under its weight. In the early morning hours of August 25, the column collapsed as the dense vapors no longer supported the weight of their solid contents. The catastrophic cloud began racing down the volcano’s flanks. This was the first of six pyroclastic flows that Mount Vesuvius would release that day.

It approached the town of Herculaneum at speeds above 100 miles per hour. Those unlucky to be swept up in its path perished quickly from heat exposure, as temperatures within the surge reached around 250 degrees Celsius. Due to the small quantity of skeleton remains recovered in the town, historians assumed for years that Herculaneum was mostly deserted by the time the floods arrived. In the 1980s, however, 400 well-preserved bodies were discovered in boathouses along the town’s barrier, indicating that not everyone had chosen to escape. Herculaneum was subsequently buried beneath 25 meters of volcanic debris.

On the second day of the eruption, when the sun began to rise, the ashfall in Pompeii began to subside. Citizens within the city boundaries assumed the conflict was finished, and some of those who had fled began to return to their houses to retrieve their remaining belongings. If volcanic explosions had a calm center, this would be it. A brief and misleading quiet period preceded the fourth pyroclastic surge from Mount Vesuvius.

It arrived at 7:30 a.m. and slammed on Pompeii at almost 200 miles per hour, with temperatures topping 300 degrees Celsius. At that time, every living creature in Pompeii was doomed to die in a fraction of a second. Even those who escaped to the countryside were not certain of protection, as the waves penetrated the surrounding terrain. A fifth wave permanently buried Pompeii.

Pliny the Younger had been staying in Misenum, on the other side of the Bay of Naples from the volcano, some 18 miles away. Even at this distance, residents of Misenum felt the consequences of the volcanic eruption, as ash fell thickly on the Roman port. Pliny, his mother, and many people first opted to stay behind and see the unfolding events across the bay. ‘On the opposite side, a dark and terrible cloud, interrupted with quick, zigzag flashes, revealing behind it variably formed masses of flame: these last were similar to sheet lightning but considerably larger…’ Immediately after that, the cloud began to fall and cover the ocean.

Pliny’s uncle, Pliny, the Elder, had courageously set ship earlier in the day to aid others trapped near the volcano. His corpse was discovered a few days later, and a heart attack was most likely the cause of death.

Pliny the Younger recorded seeing the bay’s waves recede, indicating what was likely a small tsunami triggered by the volcanic explosions. Eventually, the 17-year-old Pliny and his mother accompanied a large group of people into the countryside. He recounts individuals covering their heads with pillows to protect themselves from falling things.

Pliny recalls hearing the shrieks of women, the wails of infants, and the shouts of men. People lamented their destinies or those of their families, and some begged for death out of fear of death. Many sought the gods’ assistance, while others believed no gods were remaining and that the cosmos had been thrown into endless darkness… he admit that he took some meager solace from the thought that the entire planet and he was dying at the same time.

By the end of the second day, the light was finally able to break through the cloud and reach the scorched countryside below, raising the spirits of those still alive. Mount Vesuvius was at last at rest.

Estimates place the number of fatalities caused by the eruption at 13,000 and 16,000, making it one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.

Herculaneum and Pompeii have never been reconstructed. In underground time capsules, they were entombed beneath ash, dust, and rock and kept forever. In the immediate aftermath, Roman thieves excavated Pompeii to take any items they could. In the following centuries, the locations of the Herculaneum and Pompeii were forgotten and lost until the 18th century, when they were rediscovered by chance.

During investigations in the nineteenth century, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that the gaps he was uncovering in the layers of ash at Pompeii were cavities left by decayed human remains. He created the method of pumping plaster into them to bring Pompeii’s dying citizens to life in dramatic realism.

Over a thousand terrible castings of bodies in horrifying suspended animation have been created. Pompeii and Herculaneum are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and among the world’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Every year, millions of tourists visit the once-buried city of Pompeii, making it one of the most popular and well-known tourist destinations in Italy, and presenting successive generations with a rare glimpse into Roman daily life.

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