Pompeii

What nature preserved, it also destroyed

Largest Volcano Eruption in History

This is a picture of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii.The Vesuvius volcano did not form overnight, of course. In fact, scholars say that the mountain is hundreds of thousands of years old and had been erupting for generations. In about 1780 B.C., for example, an unusually violent eruption (known today as the “Avellino eruption”) shot millions of tons of superheated lava, ash and rocks about 22 miles into the sky. That prehistoric catastrophe destroyed almost every village, house and farm within 15 miles of the mountain.

But it was easy to overlook the mountain’s bad temper in such a pleasant, sunny spot. Even after a massive earthquake struck the Campania region in 63 A.D.–a quake that, scientists now understand, offered a warning rumble of the disaster to come–people still flocked to the shores of the Bay of Naples. Pompeii grew more crowded every year.

How the preserved city was discovered.

Pompeii was buried - although not, as we now know, destroyed - when the nearby, supposedly extinct, volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, covering the town and its inhabitants in many tons of pumice and volcanic ash. The disaster remained in people's minds for many years but was eventually forgotten, until the exploration of the ancient site started in an area called 'Civita', in 1748.

Before the eruption.

Ever since the ancient Greeks settled in the area in the 8th century B.C., the region around Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples attracted wealthy vacationers who wanted to soak up the sun and the scenery. By the turn of the first century A.D., the town of Pompeii, located about five miles from the mountain, was a flourishing resort for Rome’s most distinguished citizens. Elegant houses and elaborate villas lined the paved streets. Tourists, townspeople and slaves bustled in and out of small factories and artisans’ shops, taverns and cafes, and brothels and bathhouses. People gathered in the 20,000-seat arena and lounged in the open-air squares and marketplaces. On the eve of that fateful eruption in 79 A.D., scholars estimate that there were about 20,000 people living in Pompeii and the surrounding region.

Fun fact

Mount Vesuvius has not erupted since 1944, but it is still one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Experts believe that another Plinean eruption is due any day--an almost unfathomable catastrophe, since almost 3 million people live within 20 miles of the volcano’s crater.
A Day in Pompeii - Full-length animation

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.

Bastille - Pompeii