On 24 August 79 AD, one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions occurred in ancient history. Located in the Campania region in the Bay of Naples, the ancient city of Pompeii and those who lived around it never saw Mount Vesuvius as a threat. Their knowledge of volcanoes was limited and it had not erupted dangerously in recent memory so its dangerous past was unknown to them. As one expert put it, this volcano is a low frequency high impact one.
In 79 AD Pompeii was not unlike a vacation resort we know today. Wealthy Romans vacationed here and built beautiful houses and villas. Locals benefited as it meant these Romans were willing to spend money on fine foods and all kinds of other luxuries. Shops, cafes, taverns and other places flourished from the tourists who came and stayed a while. With open area squares and marketplaces, it was a busy place. It is estimated by scholars that up to 20,000 people lived here in 79 AD. In 63 AD, Pompeii and Herculaneum were shaken badly by an earthquake that damaged many houses and damaged infrastructure. Excavations have shown that by 79 AD they were still repairing the damage done from that earthquake. And that more recent ones had occurred as well.
The Eruption of 79 AD
It was a normal day like any other. The occasional rumbles from the mountain had not particularly alarmed anyone. Around noon on 24 August 79 things changed forever. Mt.Vesuvius erupted with a massive 10 mile mushroom cloud sent into the stratosphere. All the ash and pumice would rain down over the area for the next twelve hours. At this stage it was still possible for those who could to flee. Those who remained would see it get steadily worse. Night would become day. Hot ash and pumice would fall continuously causing buildings to collapse from its weight. It became terribly difficult to breathe as well. The next morning the dawn would not be seen. And early in the morning of 25 Aug, a pyroclastic surge swept through the area. This superheated poison gas and pulverized rock traveled over 100 miles per hour. Unless you were outside the radius of the surge or deep underground, it would kill you. By the time the volcano subsided the next day, Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered completely by volcanic ash as was another town Stabiae. Those who came back to find relatives or view the scene were startled. The cities were completely buried and would remain so until the first excavations in 1748.
Pliny The Younger, staying west across the Bay of Naples, recorded what he saw in two letters he sent to Tacitus. Sadly his uncle, Pliny the Elder, would perish when he went over in his boats to Stabiae. Pliny wrote the eruption lasted eighteen hours with Pompeii buried under 14-17 feet of ash and pumice.
Vesuvius has erupted many times since. The most catastrophic one was in 1631 where it destroyed many villages under lava flows and 3,000 people died. Its last major eruption was in March 1944 and destroyed several small villages with lava. The eruption was seen from Naples and damaged (thanks to hot ash and other things)or destroyed up to 88 B-25 medium bombers based in Terzigno, Italy. The volcano is kept under constant watch to prevent anything on the scale of the eruption of 79 AD to the people who live under its shadow.
Significant excavations beginning in 1927 have revealed much of what life must have been like before the destruction. More somber were the finding of some 2,000 bodies. Volcanic ash hardened and preserved the outlines of their bodies. Once the flesh had gone, the outline remained but filled in with plaster revealed those final moments of their lives. Many of the homes that have been excavated display much of how the wealthy lived in Pompeii. Ironically the city was built with materials from the last catastrophic earthquake called Avellino Eruption that occurred during the Bronze Age.