The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
- 24th August 79AD -
A story of endless fascination the world over, the eruption of Pompeii has been recreated on TV and film on numerous occasions. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum have become some of the great tourist spots, situated in the Bay of Naples. What is often forgotten however is the massive loss of life, sometimes estimated at 13,000, and the human tragedy of the event. The Romans, no strangers to large scale death and destruction, even referred to it as an extreme event.
The region was still coming to terms with the major earthquake that took place in AD63. From the archaeologists finds, cracks in buildings and objects have been repaired and put right from that event. These tremors had been frequent. If felt today, then seismologists could predict the explosion of the volcano. The Romans had made no link between seismic tremors and the potential eruption of Vesuvius.
Pompeii had been established back in 600BC and was a thriving town in the Bay of Naples, 90 miles south of Rome. It was a popular holiday spot, set in the shadow of the mighty Vesuvius, which was 6500feet high. The event, that August day, was to take the residents completely by surprise.
In the morning there was a loud explosion and fire could be seen pouring out of the volcano to a height of 12 miles, twice the height of Everest. Initially there was a rain of ash, rock and pumice. Those who left in the first few hours had a chance to get away. Two of the people who saw the events unfold were Pliny the Elder, in charge of the Imperial Naval base at Misneum, and his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who was watching with his mother from further away and eventually fled North. The Younger’s view was obscured for a time by thick black smoke which blotted out the daylight. The Elder watched across the bay and then went with ships to the area to investigate what was going on. He was pelted by rocks and could not land and headed for Stabiae, where he went ashore. He decided to try and see out the storm, but as Pliny the Younger’s vivid account below will recount, was killed the following day by noxious fumes.
Just before midnight on August 24th the first pyroclastic flow down the hillside occurred. This is a flow of hot lava that came down the hillside at 70mph. The temperature of this mass was 1300°F. The flow smashed down buildings. Alongside this was a large amount of volcanic gas. This covered the area in 16 feet of debris. At around 6.30am on August 25th another huge amount of gas fell from the volcano onto the surrounding area killing everyone who was still alive instantly. The superheated air burnt the lungs of those who breathed it in and constricted the muscles which explains why many of the bodies found are in a semi-circular position. The further tremors caused a massive landslide which buried Herculaneum.
The rain that mixed with the ash and pumice caused it to set like concrete and the place was not rediscovered until 1595 during the construction of an aqueduct. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the area started to become a flourishing tourist resort once again.
Pliny the Younger wrote to his friend Tacitus about his Uncle and what he had seen and his letter best sums up both the desperation and grimness of what occurred.
On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance.
A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into.
He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance.
He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene.
He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice- stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, "Fortune," said he, "favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is." Pomponianus was then at Stabiae,94 separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it.
Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside.
The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction.
In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them.
It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevai1ed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed.
As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum -- but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle's death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public.