A gift to my 18-yr old niece and nephew. I took them on a once in a lifetime trip to Italy, Spain and France. They had a pint of Guinness on the stop over in Dublin, a glass of wine in Italy and Sangria in Spain. Our most favorite part of the trip was our guided visit to Pompeii.
Pompeii was amazing!! Mount Vesuvius (in the background) is a volcano in southern Italy that sat dormant for centuries. That all changed on August 24, 79 AD, when a massive eruption destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, submerging them under layers of volcanic material and mud, killing thousands of people. These are frescos of what the inside of houses used to look like.
I think we were almost as excited as the archeologist to see the inside of this plasticized mummy! It had been just excavated and they were looking at the tongue. The one below depicts a large amount of artifacts discovered.
Here are a couple of great articles I found on Mt. Vesuvius and the famous eruption.
Mount Vesuvius is a volcano in southern Italy that sat dormant for centuries. That all changed on August 24, 79 AD, when a massive eruption destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, submerging them under layers of volcanic material and mud and killing thousands of people. Here are 10 facts about Mt. Vesuvius and the famous eruption.
1. Mt. Vesuvius is one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.
The only active volcano in mainland Europe, Mt. Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. It is a complex stratovolcano, which is a highly scenic and highly deadly type of volcano. Stratovolcanos have gentle lower slopes, and then rise steeply toward the peak. Their eruptions are explosive and involve pyroclastic flows, which are fast-moving currents of fluidized rock and gases. Mt. Vesuvius is located on the western coast of Italy, making and cities and towns such as Naples highly vulnerable to destruction in an eruption.
2. Although the eruption caught people off guard, the signs had been coming for years.
The people in Pompeii and Herculaneum were taken by complete surprise when the volcano erupted. However, the signs were there in the form of a series of earthquakes. In 63 AD, a massive earthquake shook the region, and damage from the earthquake was still being repaired when Mt. Vesuvius erupted 16 years later.
3. The eruption was catastrophic, lasting more than 24 hours.
The eruption officially started on the morning of August 24, as molten rock and pumice began to be expelled from Mt. Vesuvius at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. Copious amounts of rock and volcanic ash filled the atmosphere, turning day into night. It is estimated that about six inches of ash fell every hour. Around midnight the pyroclastic surges and flows started, and on the morning of the 25th, a toxic cloud of gas descended on Pompeii.
4. We know much of what happened from an eyewitness account.
There is a detailed account of the eruption thanks to Pliny the Younger, who was a Roman administrator and poet. He watched the eruption from afar and questioned survivors, and then wrote of the event in letters to his friend Tacitus. Pliny’s letters, which are the only eyewitness accounts of the eruption, were discovered in the 16th century.
5. Thousands of people were buried alive.
At that time, around 20,000 people — manufacturers, merchants, and farmers — lived in Pompeii, and another 5,000 lived in Herculaneum. The region was a popular summer tourist destination, and there were some smaller towns and resort areas as well. Many of the people who did not flee when the eruption started were buried alive by ash and other molten material. It is estimated that about 16,000 people died in the eruption.
6. There was no attempt to rebuild the cities.
Normally after a natural disaster, cities are rebuilt, but not this time. Apparently the damage was so extensive and the effect of the tragedy so great that no attempts were made to reoccupy the area. Looters, however, did return to Pompeii, digging tunnels through the ash and debris and making away with many of the city’s riches.
7. Pompeii became frozen in time.
Historians believe that Pompeii was buried under 14 to 17 feet of ash and pumice. In 1748 when explorers examined the site, they found that the volcanic ash had acted as a preservative, and many of the buildings and even the skeletons and remnants of city life were still intact. This city frozen in time has provided historians with a glimpse into what life was like in ancient Rome, and more than 1,000 casts have been made of recovered bodies that were preserved in the ash. The city of Herculaneum was less fortunate — it was buried under more than 60 feet of mud and other volcanic material.
8. The excavation of Pompeii influenced 18th-century neoclassicism.
In the 18th century, it became popular for western art, theater, and architecture to draw on Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Scholars believe that this movement, called neoclassicism, was heavily influenced by the excavation of Pompeii.
9. It had happened before.
Though the Romans didn’t know it at the time, Mt. Vesuvius had erupted catastrophically at least twice before. More recent excavations suggest that a huge eruption occurred around 1800 BC, decimating large settlements in the area.
On August 24, 79 Mount Vesuvius literally blew its top, spewing tons of molten ash, pumice and sulfuric gas miles into
Vesuvius erupts, 1944
the atmosphere. A "firestorm" of poisonous vapors and molten debris engulfed the surrounding area suffocating the inhabitants of the neighboring Roman resort cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Tons of falling debris filled the streets until nothing remained to be seen of the once thriving communities. The cities remained buried and undiscovered for almost 1700 years until excavation began in 1748. These excavations continue today and provide insight into life during the Roman Empire.
An ancient voice reaches out from the past to tell us of the disaster. This voice belongs to Pliny the Younger whose letters describe his experience during the eruption while he was staying in the home of his Uncle, Pliny the Elder. The elder Pliny was an official in the Roman Court, in charge of the fleet in the area of the Bay of Naples and a naturalist. Pliny the Younger's letters were discovered in the 16th century.
Wrath of the Gods
A few years after the event, Pliny wrote a friend, Cornelius Tacitus, describing the happenings of late August 79 AD when the eruption of Vesuvius obliterated Pompeii, killed his Uncle and almost destroyed his family. At the time, Pliney was eighteen and living at his Uncle's villa in the town of Misenum. We pick up his story as he describes the warning raised by his mother:
"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. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. 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 a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.
As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.
He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them. Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.
For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell. This wind was of course full in my uncle's favour, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom. After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.
Vesuvius from space
Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned. Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door. By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.
They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.
Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.
Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.
Shrieks of the People
In a second letter to Tacitus, Pliny describes what happened to him and to his mother during the second day of the disaster:
Portrait of a young girl. From a mural on the wall of a Pompeii home.
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.'Let us leave the road while we can still see,'I said,'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.'We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it."
Allen, G.B. (editor), Selected Letters of Pliny, (1915); Maiuri, Amedeo, Pompeian Wall Paintings (1960); Radice, Betty (translator), The Letters of The Younger Pliny (1969).http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pompeii.htmHow To Cite This Article:
"The Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1999).