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The End of Pompeii and Herculaneum (August 24-25, A.D. 79) Part 1 of 3

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The End of Pompeii and Herculaneum (August 24-25, A.D. 79) Part 1 of 3

It was approximately 1 PM and lunchtime in Pompeii and Herculaneum when Mt. Vesuvius’ 19 hours of sustained eruptions began that left both towns buried in volcanic ash and rock, and frozen in time. By the end of Vesuvius’ massive eruption, more than 2,000 people had perished even though there had been sufficient time for everyone to flee. Although the actual death toll is not known since some victims perished in flight and others were swept into the Bay during the tsunami, the remains of 1,150 persons have been recovered in and around Pompeii, 350 victims in Herculaneum[1] and two on a road north of Pompeii.[2]

When Vesuvius rumbled to life sending a series of tremors days in advance, the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum, located at the mountain’s foot, were not concerned. Many were used to earthquakes, they “were lulled into a false sense of security because of the volcano’s long dormancy”[3] and/or did not realize that Vesuvius was a volcano because it had been dormant for many generations; “its slopes were covered with orchards, vineyards, and olive groves.”[4] Furthermore since the Campania region had experienced a strong earthquake in A.D. 62 that caused significant damage to both sister towns and minor quakes in A.D. 64 and A.D. 70 with no volcanic eruptions, the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum believed they could ride out the current series of weak tremors in the safety of their homes. They did not realize that the A.D. 62 quake had possibly been caused by “a fracturing of Vesuvius’ edifice by flowing magma” and the A.D. 64 quake and [A.D. 70 ‘seismic swarm’ (series of tremors)][5] by the continued “shifting of magma” some 3 miles below the surface.[6] In addition, many did not view Vesuvius as a threat – “In the House of the Centenary (IX-8-5), a lararium (“in an ancient Roman home, a shrine for the Lares, the spirits who, if appeased, watched over the house or community to which they belonged”[7]) fresco found in the servant’s quarters [portrayed] Bacchus, represented with a bunch of grapes, a thyrsus (“a staff surmounted by a pinecone or by a bunch of vine or ivy leaves with grapes or berries”[8]) and a panther, in front of [Vesuvius] entirely covered with vineyards. The mountain was viewed as the home of this god of festivity and prosperity, and… Pompeiians never considered it to be dangerous.”[9] Accordingly they went on with their daily routines without giving the mountain much thought, even though previous writings indicated that it was a volcano.

Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 70 B.C.-c. 25 B.C.) wrote in Book II of De Architectura “…that the fires [of Vesuvius] were stronger in the past and that the plentiful flames within the mountain had emerged and burned fields thereabouts. It is for this reason that the rock called ‘sponge’ or ‘Pompeiian pumice’ seems to have been formed from some other sort of rock by the heat,”[10] while Greek writer Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 B.C.-c. 30 B.C.) wrote in Book IV of Bibliotheca Historica that “the Campanian plain was called ‘Phlegrean’ (fiery) because of… Vesuvius which had spouted flame like Etna and showed signs of the fire that had burnt in ancient history,” and Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (4 B.C.-A.D. 24) wrote of Vesuvius and its surroundings in Book V, Chapter IV of Geographica – “Mt. Vesuvius dominates this region [Campania]. All but its summit is clad in exceptionally fine fields. The summit itself is mostly flat, and entirely barren. The soil looks like ash, and there are cave-like pits of blackened rock, looking gnawed by fire. This area appears to have been on fire in the past and to have had craters of flame… No doubt this is the reason for the fertility of the surrounding area, as at Catana, where they say that soil filled with the ash thrown up by Etna’s flames makes the land particularly good for vines.”[11] Even the fact that the “Phlegrean (Fiery) Fields” located some 20 miles away consisted of “smoke-filled caverns and volcanic geysers,”[12] Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius’ (A.D. 45-A.D. 96) wrote, “I am eager to move you… [even though] Vesuvius and that baleful mountain’s storm of fire have not completely drained the frightened cities of their folk…”[13] in a letter to his wife in Book III, Chapter V of Silvae and Silius Italicus (c. A.D. 25-A.D. 101) wrote “Vesuvius… thundered, hurling flames worthy of Etna from her cliffs; and the fiery crest, throwing rocks up to the clouds, reached the trembling stars”[14] in his epic poem, “Punica” about the volcano’s last known eruption in 217 B.C. eruption, people were not convinced.

On the eve of the eruption, Campania was an idyllic region, “…plainly the handiwork of Nature in her favorite spot!”[15] in the words of Roman admiral, historian, philosopher, and naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundas known as Pliny The Elder (A.D. 23-A.D. 79) who perished during Vesuvius’ eruption. “Campania [is] a region blessed by fortune. From this bay (Bay of Naples) onwards you find vine-growing hills and a noble tipple of wine famed throughout the world. Over this area the gods of wine and grain fought their hardest, or so tradition tells us. The territories for Setine wine and Caecuban begin here; beyond these lie Falernum and Calenum. Then come the Massic Mountains, and those of Gauranum and Surrentum. There lie spread the fields of Lebroinum with their fine harvest of grain. These shores are watered by warm springs; they are famed beyond any other for their shellfish and their fine fish. Nowhere do olives produce more oil – the production strives to match the demands of human pleasure.”[16] At this time, Pompeii with a population of about 20,000 was a “commercial and agricultural center” and an upper class neighborhood in the midst of an election campaign while Herculaneum, with a population of about 5,000 was a resort favored by wealthy Romans that consisted of an amphitheatre that could seat 16,000 people, “dozens of taverns, magnificent brothels and lavishly appointed baths.”[17] Both, though mostly rebuilt, were still undergoing construction to repair the affects of the devastating A.D. 62 quake which in the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65), emperor Nero’s administrator, “laid down Pompeii, made great ruins in Herculaneum and caused minor damage in Nuceria and Naples, where the emperor Nero was performing in the theatre. …the earthquakes lasted for several days until they became milder ‘but still caused great damage.’”[18] Evidence of ongoing repairs consisted of a “plastered” cracked oven, the mending of previously damaged buildings, digging of three cesspits linking latrines to houses, an open trench for a water tower and “heaps of plaster.”[19]

Seneca also wrote in a letter: “Pompeii, so they tell me, has collapsed in an earthquake. It is a well-known city in Campania, with Surrentum and Stabiae on one side and Herculaneum on the other. The coastline here pulls back from the open sea and shelters Pompeii in a pleasant bay. Some areas near Pompeii were shaken as well. The earthquake occurred during the winter, though it had always been said that the winter was not the dangerous time of year. But it was on the fifth of February in 62 that this earthquake devastated Campania. The area never safe from this sort of danger, but it had escaped damage and outlived the scare many times before. Parts of Herculaneum collapsed, and those that remain standing are insecure, while the colony at Nuceria, though not devastated, has plenty to lament. In Naples the disaster struck pretty lightly. Many private buildings were lost, but no public ones. Some villas fell down. Everything shook, but for the most part it did no damage. Other effects: a flock of 600 sheep perished, statues shattered, and some people went mad and wandered about out of control”[20] while Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman Historian (A.D. 56-A.D. 117) made mention of the earthquake in The Annals, Book XV stating, “An earthquake… demolished a large part of Pompeii, a populous town in Campania.”[21]

The first indications of an impending eruption began on August 20, A.D. 79 when the Campania region was rattled by a series of mild earthquakes that were recounted by Roman historian Dio Cassius (A.D. 155-A.D. 235) in A.D. 203 Roman History, Epitome of Book LXVI – “The Eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii” and Pliny the Younger (A.D. 62-A.D. 111), a 17-year-old witness to the catastrophic events who watched from Misenum, a town located about 13 miles northwest of Vesuvius on the other side of the Bay of Naples. Dio Cassius wrote: “…violent earthquakes occurred, so that the whole plain round about seethed and the summits leaped into the air. There were frequent rumblings, some of them subterranean, that resembled thunder, and some on the surface, that sounded like bellowings; the sea also joined in the roar and the sky re-echoed it”[22] while Pliny the Younger wrote: “There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic.”[23]

At this time no one was aware that a huge “magma layer” that resided below Vesuvius, stretching all the way to the Phlegrean Fields[24] “was forcing its way upwards into the feeder pipe of the volcano [as nearby] springs [suddenly] dried up…”[25] Intense pressure had been building up over the last 2000 years since the volcano’s last major eruption, the “Avellino” eruption in c. 1800 B.C. that “blanketed thousands of square miles northeast of [it, including the area comprising Naples], creating a bleak landscape of uninhabitable desert that lasted for more than 200 years.”[26]

Accordingly there was little concern as the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were pursuing their usual daily activities when Mt. Vesuvius suddenly erupted. People sat down to eat, a family was baking bread, another was preparing to eat a snack of “nutmeats,” a baby took a nap in crib, gladiators were at the amphitheatre to train, residents attended a theater performance, a high-class prostitute decked in jewels solicited clients, people strolled the streets, some patronizing shops and outdoor food bars, workers used their tools to patch up damage from the reoccurring tremors, a homeowner cut the grass and a family dog was tied to a post in a courtyard.

Continued in Part 2 of 3

[1]Mount Vesuvius. 2006. 30 April, 2006. Wikipedia.com. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mt._Vesuvius

[2]Jason Urbanus. More Vesuvius Victims. Newsbriefs March/April 2003. 5 May, 2006. http://www.archaeology.org/0303/newsbriefs/pompeii.html

[3]Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Pompeii: Portents of Disaster. BBC.com. 30 April, 2006. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/pompeii_portents_print.html

[4]Nigel Cawthorne. 100 Catastrophic Disasters. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2003) 150.

[5]Salvatore Nappo. Pompeii: A Guide to the Ancient City. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 13.

[6]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006. http://www.archaeology.co.uk/cwa/issues/cwa4/pompeii/eruption.htm

[7]infoplease® Dictionary. Random House, Inc. 1997. 8 May, 2006. http://www.infoplease.com/dictionary/lararium

[8]Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2006. 8 May, 2006. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/thyrsus

[9]Salvatore Nappo. Pompeii: A Guide to the Ancient City. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 11.

[10]Vitruvius. De Architectura, Book II. 1 May, 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/08.html

[11]Strabo. Geographica, Book V, Chapter IV. 1 May, 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/07.html

[12]Nigel Cawthorne. 100 Catastrophic Disasters. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2003) 150.

[13]Publius Papinius Statius. Silvae, Book III Chapter V “Ad Uxorem.” 1 May 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/10.html

[14]Vesuvius A.D. 79. 1 May, 2006. http://www.phenomena.org.uk/vesuvius.htm

[15]Pliny. Natural History 3.40 and 3.60. 1 May, 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/09.html

[16]Pliny. Natural History 3.40 and 3.60. 1 May, 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/09.html

[17]Nigel Cawthorne. 100 Catastrophic Disasters. (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2003) 150.

[18]Larry Park and Marshall Masters. It is Time To Cast A Worried Eye Towards Yellowstone. 2006. 1 May, 2006. http://www.yowusa.com/earth/2003/earth-2003-08a/1.shtml

[19]Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. Pompeii: Portents of Disaster. BBC.com. 30 April, 2006. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/pompeii_portents_print.html

[20]Seneca Topics in Natural History 6.1. 1 May, 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/07.html

[21]P. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, Book XV AD 62-65. 2 May, 2006. [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/t/tacitus/t1a/annals12.html]

[22]Dio Cassius. The Eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompei, “Roman History Epitome of Book LXVI” (A.D. 203) 2 May, 2006. [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/66]*.html

[23]Pliny Letter 6.20. 30 April 2006. http://www.amherst.edu/~classics/DamonFiles/classics36/ancsrc/02.html

[24]Ivan Noble. Massive magma layer feeds Vesuvius. BBC.com. November 15, 2001. 3 May, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1656722.stm

[25]AD 79 – Vesuvius explodes. 5 of May, 2006. http://www.archaeology.co.uk/cwa/issues/cwa4/pompeii/eruption.htm

[26]Ker Than. Vesuvius Could Destroy Naples, History Suggests. Live Science.com. March 6, 2006. 2 May, 2006. http://www.livescience.com/forcesofnature/060306_ancient_vesuvius.html

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