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Eruption of Mount Vesuvius


View of the Vesuvius massif from Pompeii

In 79 CE Mount Vesuvius (Vesuvio), unexpectedly resumed its eruption activity, covering the area with a hurricane of ashes, lapels, poisonous gases and eruptive materials. At that time, streams of lava mixed with mud were flowing down the slopes of the volcano.

The explosion was so sudden and unexpected that it completely surprised more than three thousand inhabitants of Pompeii. The eruption was preceded by a series of earthquakes also in the Danube region. After the eruption Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae was covered a layer of ashes more than six metres high, which mortally throttling the city preserved the testimonies of the life of its inhabitants, immobilized forever in the moment of the tragedy. The consequences of the outbreak of Vesuvius were fear and death in the flourishing regions of Campania. Ashes reached even such distant areas as Egypt or Syria. Ash clouds also reached Rome, obscuring the sun for several days and causing panic. Many other cities were also destroyed.

The explosion took place several months after the take over the power by emperor Titus (24 June 79 CE), older son of ex-emperor Vespasian.

Such a serious catastrophe was the greatest possible shock to the ancient Romans, even when compared to earthquakes. For Emperor Titus it was a sign from the gods of their wrath, for the earlier suppression of the uprisings in Judea. The ruler took appropriate measures (games, giving aid) to alleviate the inhabitants of the affected areas. To make matters worse, the following year Rome was hit by an epidemic of plague and another large fire in the city. All these events could have been the cause of Titus’; premature death in September 81 CE. Titus died when he was only 42 years old.

Explosion range of Vesuvius
On Creative Commons license Recognition of authorship – On the same condition 3.0.

Before explosion in 79 CE


According to Roman writers, the slope of Vesuvius was developed by the inhabitants of the region (except for the peak where the surface was rocky). There were vineyards and gardens. As researchers suggest, in ancient times the mountain could only have had one peak, as evidenced by e.g. the fresco showing Bachus and Vesuvius found in a Pompeian house Casa del Centenario.

A fresco from Pompeii showing Bachus and Mount Vesuvius. As you can see, there was a volcano with one peak.

The question that comes to everyone. Were the ancient Romans not aware of the eruptive nature of the mountain, and did it not arouse any suspicion? As it turns out, several ancient authors mentioned Vesuvius, suggesting that the mountain could actually be dangerous.

How Vesuvius could have looked like in 79 CE.

Greek historian Strabon in his work “Geography” (V, 4) wrote that dust-covered rocks can prove “craters filled with fire”. What is more, the fertility of the slope of the mountain can result from eruptional activity – just like in the case of Mount Etna.
Vitruvius for a variety, in his work “De architectura” (II) describes that fire occurs under the peak of Vesuvius and used to flow down the slopes of the mountain.
Diodorus Siculus wrote in “Bibliotheca Historica” (IV) that Campania plain is named Phlegrean, that is “fiery”, because Vesuvius threw flames out of itself.

Date of explosion


The month of the eruption of Vesuvius is still under discussion today. Pliny the Younger mentions the eruption of Vesuvius in a letter to his friend Tacit, clearly speaking about 24 August. Interestingly, however, he wrote it 20 years after the volcanic eruption. Additionally, the original copies of Pliny’s letter have not survived to our times. These have been translated and rewritten many times over the centuries, which could lead to discrepancies in the month’s arrangement – months from August to November appeared. However, “the end of summer”; is also supported by Cassius Dion in the 66th book of his work.

Another proposal is on 24 October. Evidence of this is, among others, the fact that scientists have come across an extremely intriguing discovery in Pompeii. A wall was excavated from the ground, and on it a record made of charcoal, which was probably made by a worker renovating the house. More information below.

In Pompeii, an inscription was found, which may change the date of Vesuvius’ explosion

There is a theory that the explosion took place also in November – dates 23, 24 and 25 November appear. The November theory has gained in importance as a result of research in Pompeii. In the ruins of the city were discovered the remains of fruit and vegetables, which in August should not yet be present. A commemorative coin was also found in the city (Rosaria Ciardiello described this finding), which could not be struck before October 79 CE.

Explosion


The eyewitness and the person who described the whole event was Pliny the Younger, who at the age of about 18 watched the extermination from his uncle’s observatory Elder Pliny is located 30 km from the site of the catastrophe in Misenum. This is how the catastrophe is described by Pliny the Younger, in a letter to his friend – historian Tacitus:

We looking from afar, because from Misenum, at first we were not sure which mountain is a cloud of smoke. It was only later that Vesuvius was recognized. And this cloud with its shape resembled the most a tree, and this is the pine, because it erected into the sky as if a trunk straight and tall, spreading branches there. I think that she was carried away by a strong blast, gradually weakening, or she bent under her own weight. It seemed white, grey and sharpened again, depending on whether the ashes were carrying or the ground. It was about seven o’clock a day. My mother was the first to tell my uncle that a cloud appeared so unusual. She already took a sun bath and then a cold bath, as he ate while lying down and just studied. He demanded sandals, entered the place from where he could see the best unusual phenomenon. As a scientist, he believed that it was worthy of closer examination, so he ordered to prepare a light Liburian ship. He also suggested that I should go with them, but I answered that I prefer to work, and he himself gave me something to write. When he was leaving home, he was given a letter from Rectina, frightened by the proximity of danger, because her villa was at the foot of a mountain and there was no way out of there except by ship; so she begged him to save her. He immediately changed his plan. He was to sail because of his passion for research, and now he had a generous intention; he brought three-rowed ships to the sea and went on board to help not only the Rectine, but also many people, because that beautiful coast was densely inhabited. He rushes to where others are fleeing. Keeps the course and controls directly to the horror. He was 56 at the time.
Surely you would like to know what I survived left in Misenum, what fears and accidents? Well, after my uncle’s departure I started learning, because that’s what I stayed for. Then bath, supper, restless and short sleep. In the previous days it was already possible to feel the trembling of the ground, but it was much less terrible, because in Campania it was frequent. But that night increased enormously. One might have thought that everything was not only moving, but soon it would runes. My mother ran into my bedroom when I was getting up to wake her up if she slept. We sat on the square between the buildings and the sea. I don’t know if I should call it the constancy of spirit or carelessness (and I was 18 at the time): I demanded Titus’s book and read it as if nothing had happened, well, I even made excerpts for myself!

Pliny the Younger, Lists, LXV

The volcano eruption lasted two days. The morning of the first day was calm and did not herald the catastrophe. In the middle of the day, a sudden explosion exploded a huge amount of volcanic material (pumice, ashes), which after some time began to fall down and cover the area densely. At that time some people started to look for an escape.

Visualization of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE

At some point in the night or early morning on the second day there was an avalanche of pyroclastic avalanche (a mixture of hot gases at about 300 degrees Celsius, ashes and rock crumbs), which overflowed through, among others, Herculaneum. The avalanche caused enormous damage and death to those who had not escaped from the slopes of Vesuvius. The pyroclastic jet rushed at a speed of over 160 km/h, preventing any escape. At that time, the mountain crater was clearly shining from the fire, light shocks were felt, and a small tsunami appeared in the Gulf of Naples.

Karl Brullov, Last day of the Pompeii

At the end of the second day, the eruption ended, leaving fog and dust in an atmosphere through which the sun was poorly penetrated. Pliny the Younger summarizes how the destruction looked like after the darkness ended:

[…] A changed world, deeply buried under the ashes as if under a snowy avalanche.

Pliny the Younger, Lists, LXVI

The most recent research on ash in Pompeii led to the conclusion that ash and pumice in the first phase of the eruption was thrown to the height of 15-30 km and fell to the southeast – to Pompeii. The material fell on the roofs of houses, heating tiles up to 140 degrees Celsius. As the researchers suggest, the first stage of Vesuvius’; eruption was the last moment when one could look for rescue.

The later pyroclastic avalanche was to affect both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the second city was more severely destroyed. Whoever stayed in the city had no chance to escape, because the area was surrounded by gases with a burning temperature. The lowest temperature was in houses, where it was to be at least 100 degrees Celsius.

Pliny the Elder


Pliny the Elder on the nineteenth-century image.

Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger’s uncle, was the commander and admiral of the Roman fleet in Misenum. Pliny the Younger, the adopted son of the Admiral, stated that Pliny the Elder, seeing the volcanic eruption, decided to go on a light ship to a closer vicinity to observe the phenomenon. When preparations were in progress, a messenger came to Pliny’s quarters asking for help for his friend’s wife, Rectina, who had a villa on the coast, near the slope of the mountain. Then Pliny decided to collect a larger fleet and go to the coast in order to save the inhabitants. He himself sailed on a smaller ship to personally help Rectina.

Sailing across the Gulf of Naples, they came across a dense rain of hotashes, lumps of pumice and pieces of rock. The helmsman recommended to return to Misenum for fear of the hull of the ship, which could ignite at any time. However, Pliny was to say so “Fortune favours the brave” and ordered to continue the course on Stabiae – located 4.5 km from Pompeii.

Having reached Staba, the ship’s crew descended to the shore, planning to stay overnight. According to a report by Pliny the younger uncle was to die there because of the poisonous gases that were floating in the air; suggesting that he always had weak lungs. According to scientists, however, it is unlikely that the gases will reach so far from the crater. A more reasonable cause of death may be a heart attack or a hit of a larger rock. According to Pliny’s first letter to Tacit, the Admiral’s body was found on the second day, without clear injuries.

John Martin, Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Victims and destruction


Certainly, the damage caused by the catastrophe was enormous. The cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabie were completely destroyed and buried under layers of ash and other volcanic material. Residents who did not leave the area on time died on the spot.

Apart from Pliny the Elder, another famous victim of the eruption was Agrippa – son of the Jewish princess Drusilla and Antonius Felix. By 2003 in Pompeii and its surroundings 1044 remains or castings of bodies had been found. As it turns out, 38% of the victims probably died due to the collapse of the ceiling, under the weight of eruption rainfall or being hit by falling rocks. The remaining 62% died due to the second phase of the explosion – a pyroclastic avalanche – but largely due to suffocation. The preserved materials, frescoes and skeletons suggest that the inhabitants of Pompeii avoided the impact of a hot wave of ashes. In contrast, the victims in Herculaneum were killed by a strong impact of a hot avalanche, which covered the city under 23 metres of volcanic material. Probably all inhabitants of the city died on the second day of the outbreak of Vesuvius.

Skeletons of victims in docks in Herkulanum

In 1980 a discovery was made in Herculaneum, where 332 bodies were discovered under the arched vaults, in the docks. People gathering on the coast probably died from a thermal shock. At the decisive moment there were 3 people per square metre. So far only 85 meters of coastline in Herculaneum have been explored, so more bodies are probably waiting to be discovered.

Sources

  • Angela Alberto, Pompeje. Trzy ostatnie dni, Warszawa 2017
  • Duda Sebastian, Gniew wulkanu, "Gazeta Wyborcza", 12 July 2013
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Macha–Aslanidou Anna, Pompeje i Herkulanum – dzień zagłady, 25 October 2012

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