Mount Vesuvius is one of a line of volcanos where two tectonic plates (African and Eurasian) collide. The others volcanos along the plate are either extinct or haven’t erupted variously in tens of thousands or hundreds of years. Vesuvius in the only volcano to have erupted on mainland Europe for several centuries.
Mount Vesuvius has erupted often. Though there have been several large eruptions, the famous eruption of 79 AD was the most destructive. Vesuvius has erupted every century or so and more but has not erupted since 1944. Some eruptions have been so large that they blanketed all of southern Europe.
The 79 AD eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum was described by Pliny (a Roman lawyer, author, and civil magistrate) in two letters to the historian Tacitus which have survived for almost two thousand years. Because of his thorough descriptions, the explosive eruption at Vesuvius is termed a “Plinian eruption.” According to Pliny, Vesuvius ejected a cloud of stones, ash and fumes about twenty miles high. The molten rock and pumice released was a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.
An estimated 16,000 people died due to pyroclastic flows which are fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock (1800+° F) which can flow downhill at speed up to 450 mph. Today, Because of its location and explosive eruptions, Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The area is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world with 3,000,000 people living in nearby Naples and the surrounding areas.
Tomorrow, One of Pliny’s Letters on the eruption of Vesuvius.
Archaeological investigations constantly add to the body of knowledge about the dark days of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Two decades ago the story of the eruption of Vesuvius went that in August of 79 AD a quiet mountainside with vineyards growing on its slopes exploded killing an estimated 16,000 victims and burying two towns, several smaller communities, and much of the countryside under layers of ash and mud. Over time the names of the towns, even their existence, was lost to memory until they were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
What is known for sure is that in February, 62 AD the area was rocked by an earthquake that caused massive destruction along the bay of Naples and in Pompeii. The city was undergoing restoration when the volcano erupted. Since six hundred sheep were reported to have died on the slopes of Vesuvius, the earthquake was likely associated with Vesuvius.
The main (actually only) eyewitness reports that survive of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction that followed are two letters from Pliny the Younger, a nephew of a prominent Admiral of the Roman fleet who died attempting to rescue survivors, written 25 years after the event. (They’ll have their own day later.) The actual date of the eruption has even been called into question. While August has long been the date attributed to the eruption, some experts claim that the cooler weather clothing the victims wore and the food in season – even some references in one of Pliny’s letters – indicate November 23rd as the correct date.
The residents of Pompeii, a busy trading town in Campania which was several centuries old, were originally believed to have been killed by suffocation from poisonous gases, experts now believe – based on the condition of the bodies (see pic of contorted limbs of cast of family unit at display in British Museum)– that they died from the superheated temperatures. The town was buried under 13-20 feet of pumice and ash. More wealthy resort town of Herculaneum was initially inundated by a flow of superheated ash (pyroclastic flow) that buried the town under about 75 feet of pumice and ash that hardened into “tuff” and encased the town in an airtight shell that left the town remarkably preserved. It has revealed fewer of its secrets because it lies beneath to small towns. (See pics)
Tomorrow, A Visit from Author V.C. Locey
When I lived in Italy, I walked the halls of dozens of museums across Europe, participated in archeological digs, lived in a convent for weeks while on an extended stay in Rome, and much more. Nothing, however, touched my soul like wandering the haunted streets of Pompeii with Vesuvius looming above threatening to rain destruction down upon the city and the surrounding area and its three million inhabitants once again.
While I’m on my final push to complete two stories before the end of August and tend some family business, I plan to feature the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii for the rest of August. I needed something that wouldn’t require huge amounts of research because I will be in a writing frenzy in which I clean the house, cook and freeze food, then close the door to my office to write. One of the advantages of being an empty-nester is warning the family to enter my office or disturb my writing only in case of major emergencies – like the house on fire or major health catastrophe.
For two years, I lived a couple of hours drive from the dead city of Pompeii and its vibrant neighbor, Naples. Between my addiction to visiting the area and escorting guests who demanded guided tours, I visited Pompeii-Naples-Vesuvius more than a dozen times. Over the next three weeks, my posts will share some of the history and science of Vesuvius, the history and culture of Pompeii and Herculaeneum, and, finally, the cities’ destruction, re-discovery, and excavation.
Tomorrow, The Dark and Dreadful Day
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Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and her lover, Ares, the God of War are pictured in this fresco in Pompeii, Italy. Aphrodite had many lovers and Ares was one of the long-term paramours. Aphrodite/ Venus was a frequent subject of the artists of the ancient world.
To produce a fresco, paint is applied to wet plaster that has been spread on a wall. While some examples of fresco survive the media itself is susceptible to deterioration over time, destruction by human hands, and to external damage from weathering, floods, or earthquake.
Frescoes survive in Pompeii probably more often than any other site of the ancient world. In 79 AD Pompeii, a small but wealthy town on the Mediterranean south of Naples, was buried under volcanic ash and rocks when Vesuvius erupted. Prior to the eruption the volcano was covered by trees, vineyards, villas, and pastureland and the populace was unaware that they were living on a time bomb. The eruption was totally unexpected and resulted in the death of many of the citizens and the preservation of much of Pompeii in a hardened ash and volcanic rock. Consequently, many frescoes – like the one here – were preserved in all their magnificent colors. Tomorrow, More Aphrodite.