The crowded marketplace of Pompeii is shaken by a deafening boom, causing midday shoppers to lose their balance and stands to topple over. Panic ensues as people scream and point toward Mount Vesuvius, the massive volcano towering above them.
Around 2,000 years ago, Pompeii was a bustling city in present-day southern Italy. However, in 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing smoke and toxic gas into the air, quickly spreading to the town. In a matter of days, Pompeii and many of its 12,000 inhabitants were buried under a thick layer of ash.
Let’s take a trip back in time to the prosperous town of Pompeii as the first century CE drew near. This thriving resort, located on the Bay of Naples and the mouth of the river Sarno, roughly 5 miles (8 km) from Mount Vesuvius, was a magnet for the most distinguished members of the Roman Empire. The streets were lined with refined houses and extravagant villas, bursting at the seams with artworks and fountains.
The volcanic soil made Pompeii truly wealthy, producing a bountiful harvest of olives, grapes, and other crops. The wine from Pompeii was served in some of the most fashionable houses in Rome, making the town famous throughout the empire.
Part of the complex of the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii, with the bronze statue of the god
Following Roman tradition, the town was surrounded by a wall, complete with numerous gates and arched entrances to separate pedestrian and vehicle traffic. As you walked along the streets, you could see tourists, townspeople, and slaves hustling in and out of small factories and artisans’ shops. Taverns, cafes, brothels, and bathhouses teemed with life as people indulged in food, drink, and pleasure.
Ruins of Pompeii from above, with Vesuvius in the background
The 20,000-seat arena was a hub of activity where people gathered for various events. Meanwhile, the open-air squares and marketplaces provided a relaxing setting for people to unwind and socialize.
The suburbs were densely populated, with hundreds of farms and about one hundred villas in the surrounding countryside.
Odeon in Pompeii
Things began to get worse first in 59 CE with the violent crowd riots during the gladiator games and then in 62 CE when a powerful earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck the area around Mount Vesuvius. The quake caused extensive damage to Pompeii, collapsing buildings, damaging the water supply, and killing thousands. Many residents left the town, but the city eventually made repairs, and life resumed. Yet, Pompeii was still recovering 17 years later when disaster struck again.
As the afternoon of August 24th, 79 CE approached (although a recent discovery at the site suggests the eruption was actually in mid-October), Mount Vesuvius erupted and spewed thick ash that consumed Pompeii. A colossal blast blew off the entire top of Vesuvius, causing a gigantic mushroom cloud of pumice particles to soar 27 miles (43 km) into the sky. Experts have estimated that the force of the explosion was 100,000 times stronger than the nuclear bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945 CE. The ash turned the sky black, making it impossible to see the sun. Some people escaped the city, but others stayed home, hoping to be safe. Meanwhile, the ash continued to fall and pile up, reaching depths of up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) in some places, making it hard for people to get out.
Pompeii and other cities affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The black cloud represents the general distribution of ash and cinder.
Around midnight, the first of four clouds of hot ash, rock, and toxic gas started moving toward Pompeii. These clouds, also known as surges, were traveling at a speed of 180 miles an hour (300 km per hour). When the first surge hit Pompeii, it destroyed everything in its path. By 7 a.m. the next day, the city was completely covered in a deadly mix of ash and rock. The eruption killed about 2,000 people in the city and up to 16,000 people in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and neighboring towns and villages.
Pliny the Younger, who watched the eruption from across the Bay of Naples, wrote:
“I believed I was perishing with the world, and the world with me.”
After the devastating eruption, some people returned to Pompeii hoping to find their loved ones or lost possessions, but their search proved to be in vain. The city, along with the neighboring Herculaneum and a number of villas, was abandoned for centuries.
It wasn’t until 1748 when a group of explorers stumbled upon the site that they realized the city was largely intact beneath the thick layers of dust and debris. The powdery volcanic ash that covered the city acted as a natural preservative, freezing the bodies of men, women, children, and animals where they had fallen. Many of the bodies found were still clutching their most treasured belongings.
A cast of the muleteer. This victim of the eruption was discovered near a skeleton of a mule.
Streets were littered with everyday objects and household goods, and most buildings still stood strong despite being buried for centuries. Later, archaeologists even discovered jars of preserved fruit and loaves of bread. This remarkable preservation made Pompeii less of a ruin and more of a photograph of the ancient world.
Today, after hundreds of years of archaeological work, more than a third of the city remains buried, but the preservation of the uncovered areas is of utmost importance.
While Pompeii may be an ancient history, Mount Vesuvius is still an active threat, as experts believe that it is long overdue for another catastrophic eruption. Fortunately, the residents living near the volcano today will likely receive warnings to evacuate before it unleashes its fury.
“People never believe in volcanoes until the lava actually overtakes them.” —George Santayana
“Look at the walls of Pompeii. That’s what got the internet started.” —Robin Williams
“We are, all of us, growing volcanoes that approach the hour of their eruption, but how near or distant that is, nobody knows―not even God.” ―Fredrich Nietzsche
“People perish. Books are immortal.” —Robert Harris
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