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