Volcanic Onslaught ~ Pompeii and Herculaneum

As we stood on our terrace in Sorrento, looking across the Bay of Naples, billowy clouds suspended in a cerulean sky draped a majestic peak.  It’s hard to imagine that such a serene backdrop was once the setting of a volcanic onslaught so massive that it is classified as one of the worst eruptions in all of human history.

The volcano that wrought such fury is that of Mt. Vesuvius, still considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  She is hundreds of thousands of years old and has erupted more than 50 times, but the most famous of her outbursts was that of August, A.D. 79, when she stopped two cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian), soundly in their tracks, quickly and decisively frozen in time.

A visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum is like taking a journey back in time to see what life in ancient Rome was like. As the archeologists began their meticulous unearthing work in 1748, they found two cities still very much intact, especially Herculaneum.

Pompeii, founded in 600 B.C., was once a thriving commercial port of about 20,000 residents.  This was a middle-class community, an example of quintessential Roman life.  Streets would have been lined with shopping stalls jammed with customers.  Chariots rivaled shoppers for street space.  Rich and poor rubbed elbows as grand homes stood alongside simple abodes. Pompeii was rowdy, raw, the place for action and shopping, with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels and 130 bars, restaurants and lodgings.  In contrast, nearby Herculaneum was a more dignified place to live, with traffic-free streets, lavish homes and better drainage.

August 24, A.D. 79, a fateful day in history, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, raining hot ash down over Pompeii,  burying the city under 30 feet of volcanic soot.  One witness wrote that the volcanic dust “poured across the land like a flood”. Of her 20,000 people, 2,000 stayed to ride out the “storm” and 2,000 perished.  

No one had any idea they were living literally right under a volcano, as Vesuvius had slept for over 1,200 years.  Imagine the confusion, then the horror as small rocks and volcanic dust collapsed roofs and crushed those who chose not to flee.

Herculaneum was initially spared, thanks to the direction of the wind, but about 12 hours after the explosion began, she was slammed by a deluge of superheated ash and hot gases that came roaring off the volcano.  Eventually Herculaneum was buried under 60 feet of ash, which hardened into tuff, perfectly “freezing” the city until 1748.

Archeologists initially wondered why there were so few victims found at Herculaneum.  But during their excavations in 1981, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed in the boat storage area, a sign that some of her 4,000 residents attempted to escape by sea and were overtaken by fumes and ash.  Chilling reminders of this can still be seen today.

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Some experts believe that, although Mt. Vesuvius has stood quietly since 1944, another similar eruption is inevitable, due at any time.  This would be catastrophic as almost 3,000,000 people live within 20 miles of her crater.  For now she sits silently on the horizon, smoldering.

For those who are interested in seeing how this fateful day may have played out, an interesting re-enactment can be found here.

Next Up:  Rome

36 thoughts on “Volcanic Onslaught ~ Pompeii and Herculaneum

  • Interesring post! Volcanoes….a string of them are due to explode. We spent a bunch of time in Ometepe island in Nicaragua, where there are two volcanoes. One active, one not. I think that the majority of residents would follow in the footsteps of the 2,000 remaining in Pompeii.

    • We spent a couple of years in Yellowstone National Park, site of a super volcano. I used to “comfort” myself with the idea that if an explosion occurred, I would be gone immediately.

  • Sobering in many ways – both for what happened in the past and what could easily happen again. I enjoyed your short but very enlightening presentation!

  • Since I was a child I dreamed of visiting Pompeii. when we went a could of years so the place was absolutely over run with tourists. It was that scene that stuck with me more than anything. It looks like you had a far calmer visit.

  • Oh my gosh…you brought back so many wonderful memories of our visit to Pompeii. Carrie and I were just about moved to tears as we explored the ruins. To walk in the tracks of the chariots was amazing. I can’t image anyone not being totally moved by this visit.

  • Wow! The re-enactment really made it real. I remember seeing a figure in contortions, encased in hardened ash. I have never forgotten the agony portrayed by that figure and realizing it had been a living human being.

  • Absolutely fascinating, LuAnn. I’m mesmerized by your tale of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also find it chilling, as you said. I’ve not been there—I would love to see the ruins, but it would be disturbing to see the remains of the people who tried to escape. When we visited Yellowstone a couple of years ago I admit to a few uneasy moments standing on top of the boiling, hissing landscape.

    • There was a report when we lived in Yellowstone that in excess of 200 small earthquakes had hit the area in just one day. We didn’t feel them but I felt panicked, while no one else around me did. Those that had lived there for years were accustomed to this. It wasn’t the anomaly I thought it was. I told myself that if the super volcano exploded, we would be vaporized immediately instead of dealing with the fallout from a couple of states over. What a comforting thought, eh?

  • We had friends who had a cabin near Yellowstone up Tom Miner Gulch near the little town of Gardiner and we used to visit the area several times each summer when we lived in Montana. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with what the early explorers in the nineteenth century would have thought of the bubbling pots and noxious smells around what is now the park,does it? Loved the reenactment video and all of your great pictures! I can see that 2017 is going to be a busy year and we need to give both Pompeii and Herculaneum a prominent place on our itinerary! Anita

  • Oh my Grace! Mt. Vesuvius is so pretty. 🙂 I love seeing Mt. Vesuvius every time I drive to and from work when I was Naples. It’s so mighty big and beautiful, but surely is terrifying. Those skeletons are graphic! But seriously very-well photographed images of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Loving your frames and angles.

  • My local museum actually just had an exhibit on the Villas of Oplontis, which were near Pompeii and were destroyed when Vesuvius erupted. It was amazing to see all that archaeologists have been able to recover and it was really interesting to now read your accounts of actually visiting the place where all of this once stood. It’s an exhibit I highly recommend if you ever come across it. It’s a traveling exhibit. I’m not sure where it’s going next, I think back to Italy.

    • That’s so much for the information Diana. I had not heard of the Villas of Oplontis but would love to see the exhibit if I was in the area.

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