Vesuvius Destroys Pompeii

In AD 79 the volcano Vesuvius completely destroyed the provincial Roman town of Pompeii. Learn more.

It is doubtful that most citizens of Pompeii realized an active volcano lurked at their back door. Nor is it likely that anyone credited the volcano with the rich soil that made the land an Eden for farmers. The prosperous residents of this provincial Roman city of 20,000 probably saw Vesuvius as just another beautiful mountain and their rich volcanic soil as a gift of the gods. Life was good, and it would go on just as it had for 1,000 years. If you would have told the average Pompeiian on the morning of August 24, AD 79, that his city would be completely wiped off the the map within 24 hours, he would have probably laughed in your face.

But Pompeii was obliterated, along with several other nearby towns. Furthermore, nature had been more than generous with her warning signs. Clearly, disaster was imminent.

A great earthquake had rattled the area seventeen years before. Houses and temples collapsed. Statues toppled from their pedestals. People lay buried beneath the rubble. The damage was so great that the Emperor Nero wondered out loud if Pompeiians should just abandon the place and be done with it. But the people of Pompeii were stubborn and proud. They started rebuilding immediately -- their magnificent forum, the ten temples to the gods, their theaters, their coliseum, their shops and stores, and their homes. But it was a long process. Damage from the AD 62 was still visible when Vesuvius blew its top seventeen years later.

And there were other, more recent and telling signs of the coming disaster. Several small quakes shook the area in the days preceding the eruption. Wells dried up and springs stopped flowing. Dogs howled and birds were strangely silent. But Pompeiians went about their daily business, oblivious to the rumblings under their feet or the strange behavior of their pets.

Then, at about 1:30 on the afternoon of the 24th, there was a tremendous roar and a gargantuan column of flame, rocks, smoke and dust gushed from the summit of their beloved mountain. The lava plug capping the mouth of Vesuvius for a millennium finally surrendered to internal pressure. A half hour later Pompeii, six miles southeast of the crater, began to be pelted with fallout.

A pine tree-shaped cloud rose over the mountain and blocked the sun. Pumice pebbles, too light to do much damage, rained on Pompeii. Other rocks, as solid as bowling balls, killed a number of people. Ash sifted down on the cobbled streets at the astounding rate of six inches per hour.

Pompeiians took to their homes to escape the hurling missiles and choking ash. Residue piled up on relatively flat roofs causing buildings to collapse. Now the people of the city knew they must flee to safety. But where? Residents retrieved what valuables they could carry. Slaves bore their rich masters through the streets on sedan chairs. People, carts and livestock clogged the narrow streets. Some made their way toward the wharfs on Sarno River. Others headed into the surrounding countryside, as far away from the belching mountain as possible.

At dusk, 90 percent of the people of Pompeii had reached safety. Those still left, for whatever reason, still had plenty to time to escape -- and they probably would have done so without further hesitation if they had only known what future horror the mountain had in store.

Vesuvius had been erupting for about 10 hours. Night showed a spectacular display of lightning amid the volcanic cloud spewing from the crater. At times, the dense cloud of ash, smoke, and stone towered 12 miles high. Strong winds aloft blew the material southeast toward Pompeii and nearby Stabiae. Another town at the foot of the volcano and even closer to the crater, Herculaneum, had been spared a heavy fall of ash because it was upwind. The residents thought they were safe. They weren't.

Up until now, the heavy column laden with dust, ash and rock had been supported by the sheer force pushing out of the volcano. But, at about 11:30 p.m., that force was momentarily weakened. The superheated cloud collapsed upon itself and started to roll down the side of the mountain.

The leading edge of this avalanche was a fast-moving stream of hot ash and gases, hurtling downward at terrific speed. The second part was denser, consisting of pumice, rocks and soil, made liquid by temperatures that approached 750 degrees. The glowing cloud failed to reach Pompeii on the first try, but it easily engulfed Herculaneum. Every single soul remaining in the little resort town, by the sparking Bay of Naples, perished instantly.

An hour later, a second pyroclastic flow surged down the mountain. Again, it failed to reach Pompeii. But the steady rain of rocks and ash were getting to be more of a hazard than those at ground level were prepared to bear. Residents, still huddled in their houses, gathered what belongings they could collect and started out of the city. Yet, unbelievably, some still remained.

Four hours later, another surge roared down the mountain. This time, it was stopped at the north wall of the city. Then, at 6:30, a fourth surge broke though and swept through Pompeii, killing everyone who remained -- some estimates as high as 2,000. Pompeii had joined Herculaneum, 12 miles away, in death. Two further surges sealed the cities in an earthen tomb.

The eruption of Vesuvius lasted barely a day, but it's devastation was complete. When survivors returned they found an alien landscape. Only the very tops of a few of the taller buildings barely poked through the ground. Pompeii was buried under nine feet of ash, and a deep, hard layer left by the surges. Herculaneum, much closer to the mouth of the volcano, was buried to a depth of 65 feet or more, in a deposit as tough as concrete.

Survivors were only able to approximate the location of their homes. So they started tunneling through the town to recover their valuables. Sometimes they found their house --sometimes the house of someone else. In either case, the valuables were removed. Rome tried to send aid to the survivors, but the task was overwhelming.

The 160 acres of Pompeii, now buried deep in the earth, began a sleep that was to last until its resting place was discovered, and the town uncovered and studied, nearly 2,000 years in the distant future.

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