Today in 79AD, Mount Vesuvius began to stir on Vulcanalia:
the feast day of the god Vulcan, the deity of fire and volcanoes.
A day later, Vesuvius would erupt and destroy the city of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum, causing death and devastation in its wake, before burying the two cities and their residents under some 6 meters of pumice and ash.
Built on the lava plateau that had been deposited by Vesuvius’ previous eruptions, the lands of Pompeii were fertile. Plus, owing to its geography and access to the Sarno river and the sea, the city was considered prime real-estate in the Roman world. First settled in 8th Century BC, then by the Greeks in 450BC, it became a populous and popular Roman city by 79AD.
Earthquakes were said to be common in Pompeii throughout the centuries but little heed was paid to the tremors underfoot. With no eruptions in collective memories of the time, no one from the city’s 20,000 population knew they were living under the shadow of a ticking time bomb until the volcano erupted.
The eruption lasted a total of 2 days. On the first day, the volcano emitted a great deal of smoke and rained fine pumice stones down on the city below. During the first 24 hours, much of the population fled. On the 2nd day, Vesuvius’ eruption reached a critical point and it sent down a pyroclastic flow.
Pliny the Younger, who was 17 at the time, witnessed the series of events from Misenum, across the Bay of Naples. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, commander of the fleet in the region, personally led an expedition to rescue those escaping the destruction. In the aftermath, efforts were made to help the survivors and resettle them, but the town could not be recovered. Pompeii and Herculaneum would remain buried until the late 19th century.
Today, the two cities, having been excavated, provides us with a window into Roman life as it had been in 79AD. Victims of the eruption who had fallen where they were overcome have been discovered. Their plight and misfortune continues to resonate, as they testify to the forces of nature and humanity’s frailty in the face of such awesome powers.