|Casts of the remains of a Roman family and their slaves caught in a courtyard of Pompeii by the pyroclastic flow of Mount Vesuvius.|
Today in 79 AD Mount Vesuvius near the shores of the Bay of Naples erupted destroying of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The destruction of the cities was known through an eyewitness account of the eruption from across the bay by then 17 year old Pliny the Younger, later a noted historian in his own right, in letters to the historian Tacitus.
The letters described the fate of his uncle Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman Navy on the bay, who attempted to rescue friends by boat but was trapped on land by unfavorable winds and died the next day, probably of inhaling the toxic fumes of the eruption. The Elder was only one of tens of thousands of victims.
Vesuvius is one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the world, then and now. Not only does it erupt frequently, it is apt to explode violently, as it did that year first sending up a huge column of ash, expelling rocks and boulders, and the sending waves of deadly pyroclastic flow—fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock—which travel down the slope of the volcanic cone at speeds generally as great as 450 mph. The gas can reach temperatures of 1,830 °F.
The region was unsteady due to volcanic activity. Ancients told of earlier eruptions and the Greek demigod Hercules was associated with the volcano. The town of Herculaneum, a sea port, was named for him. Vesuvius was associated with Jove and his cult centered in the area.
Earthquakes were common. Seven years earlier a large quake heavily damaged Pompeii, and some areas of the city had still not been repaired. But the towns had been resettled and residents grew used to regular tremors. These intensified in the days before the eruption.
Residents were at first unconcerned with the eruption, but were soon thrown into a panic as rock and heavy ash began descending on them. Those who could attempted to escape. Some made it to boats in the bay, others escaped by land. But many were still trapped when the pyroclastic flow engulfed the cities, killing anyone in its path. Within days both cities were completely buried in ash.
Over time the exact location of the cities were lost.
Vesuvius continued to erupt regularly, although never as violently as in 79 AD. Eruptions were recorded in 787, 968, 991, 999, 1007 and 1036. After a period of relative quiet a new spate of eruptions started in 1631 and was followed by events in 1660, 1682, 1694, 1698, 1707, 1737, 1760, 1767, 1779, 1794, 1822, 1834, 1839, 1850, 1855, 1861, 1868, 1872, 1906, 1926, 1929, and 1944 with the mountain “smoking” and regular earthquakes in between. The volcano has not erupted since 1944.
It remains the most active volcano in the world and sits in a densely populated region with 600,000 people living in the so-called Red Zone on the slopes of the mountain or in likely kill zone of another major pyroclastic flow.
The two Roman towns were buried by up to 75 feet of ash in the original eruption and further burred over time. In 1599 worker digging a tunnel discovered walls cover in frescos, including one that bore the inscription decurio Pompeii—the town councilor of Pompeii—but an architect examining the findings did not connect it with the rumored ancient city. Shocked by the erotic content of the frescoes, he ordered the ruins reburied and they were forgotten again.
Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by workmen digging for the foundations of a summer palace for the Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples. Pompeii was rediscovered as the result of intentional excavations in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. Charles, later King of Spain, took an interest in the antiquities discovered, ordered the areas preserved and began the first excavations to unearth the towns.
Those highly sexual frescos and even common kitchen items incorporating phallic motifs were frequently reburied or even plastered over in the early years. The sexual mores of the Romans, at least those who could afford the luxury of summering at the resort city of Pompeii, were looser than anything then—or now. Some of the repeating phallic imagery, however, has been attributed to fertility cults rather than sexual libertinism
Some of this material was still not regularly available for public viewing until the year 2000 and still requires minors get parental permission. Christian moralists have long argued that Pompeii represented a later day Sodom and Gomorra and was destroyed by God’s wrath.
Today, even after more than 200 years of excavations less than 20% of the total areas of the two cities have been uncovered. But what has been found presents an astonishing glimpse of well preserved everyday life in the early Roman Empire down to the discovery that graffiti was common. Hundreds of remains have been found intact, preserved where they fell by the ash. The skeletal remains of others have been discovered still cloaked in the remnants of clothing and wearing jewelry. Castings made of the dead where they fell have become a tourist attraction.
Both archeological sites have been declared World Heritage Sites by the United Nations. A large number of artifacts from Pompeii are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum and about 20% of excavated Pompeii can be visited by tourists. Both sites are now within the boundaries of Italy’s Vesuvius National Park. Park authorities have stopped most new digging to preserve the site. Whether the archeological treasure—and the modern towns that surround it—can survive a future eruption of sleeping Vesuvius is open to question.