Eruption of Mount Vesuvius and Destruction of Pompeii

About the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. which led to the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, history of the volcano in Rome.


The eruption of Mount Vesuvius came as a terrifying surprise to the Roman sybarites who languished in their palatial villas along the Bay of Naples. They didn't know the big mountain that rose 4,000' in back of their playground was a volcano until Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried.

When: August 24, 79 A.D.

Where: 14 mi. S.E. of Naples, Italy.

The Loss: From 20,000 to 30,000 people died by asphyxiation from carbon monoxide, or were buried alive in 2 great cities.

The Disaster: The last day of life for Pompeiians began with bustling activity. The sound of wooden-wheeled grain carts echoed through the narrow 20'-wide streets. Window shutters banged. Caccilius Jacundus, the banker, walked briskly toward the Forum. The girls at Asellinia's thermopolia (wine shop) prepared hot wine and spices for their 1st customers. Everywhere were loud conversations about the upcoming election and the games that were to be held that evening in the amphitheater. August 24 was no different from most other days in the resort city, but it was destined to become a nightmare of stark terror.

At 1 P.M., Vesuvius ended its 1,500 years of inactivity. The crater floor, weakened by the violent earthquake of 63 A.D., was no match for the raging pressures deep in the earth. From the volcano's mouth a mighty explosion rocketed skyward. Terrified by the sound, louder than any they had heard, Pompeiians left their shops and villas to rush into the streets, allowing their eyes to follow the gentle green slopes to the top of the mountain. A black cloud, resembling a pine tree with extended trunk, rose high into the heavens, partially blotting out the sun. Hidden within the cloak of black smoke and ash, molten rock cooled quickly and fell straight down, back into the screaming throat of Vesuvius. Four miles away, Pompeii was untouched.

With the 2nd eruption, more awesome than the 1st, darkness spread its blanket over the sky and pumice stones rained on the defenseless city. Gladiators, there for the games, and some quick-thinking natives, ran from Pompeii toward the sea. A few lived to tell about the catastrophe. But most chose to seek shelter in their homes, temples, and public baths. Singly and in groups they cowered in darkness. Pumice stones and lapilli (small fragments of lava) piled high on roofs causing many to collapse. Those inside were trapped. Stronger wooden roofs were set on fire by hot ashes. Then came poisonous carbon monoxide gas along with an oppressive odor of brimstone. In 24 hours, Pompeii and its people were buried under 30' to 50' of ash and pumice stones.

The population of Herculaneum, a city near Pompeii, watched the spectacle of Vesuvius with foreboding, and wondered of Pompeii's fate, but not for long. The volcano's tremendous heat condensed moisture on the slopes of the mountain. Soon, a river of ash and mud descended on the city of 10,000 people. There was hardly time to cry out before Herculaneum was buried beneath 60' of mud that dried hard as concrete.

Aftermath: Until the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were but vague memories. Sporadic excavations were begun in Pompeii in 1709, but serious work on Herculaneum didn't begin until 1927. Today, much of Pompeii's 160,000 acres has been uncovered, and about half of Herculaneum. Both are more popular resorts than ever. Hundreds of thousands of visitors annually crowd the narrow streets of the 2,000-year-old cities.

Tomorrow: Vesuvius has erupted several times since 79 A.D., the last time in 1953. History could repeat itself at any moment, but until it does, Pompeii and Herculaneum are the only 2,000-year-old Roman resorts that can be visited without a time machine.

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