7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It

Patrick Lynch - August 7, 2017

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
The amphitheater in Pompeii. City Wonders

6 – Mount Vesuvius is Mainland Europe’s Only ‘Active’ Volcano

As I mentioned in the introduction, Mount Vesuvius is Mainland Europe’s only active volcano as its last eruption was in March 1944. It is located just 9 kilometers from the city of Naples and with over 3 million people living in the danger zone; Vesuvius’ next eruption could be the most deadly of all time. Of course, advances in technology mean that scientists are likely to know about any eruption in enough time to safely evacuate the region.

Mount Vesuvius’ first known eruption was a little over 20,000 years ago. Scientists have also found evidence of a mass evacuation in the region in the wake of the Avellino eruption which took place sometime between 1,800 and 1,500 BC. Unlike the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum, residents of the affected settlement had abandoned their village which was ultimately buried beneath pumice and ash.

After the Avellino eruption, Vesuvius entered into a stage of frequent but less violent eruptions; a notable one occurred in around 217 BC. Then came the fateful events of 79 AD when the volcano ejected stones, gas and ash up to 33 kilometers high. As I mentioned earlier, the exact number of deaths is open to speculation, but archaeologists have created 1,044 casts made from impressions of bodies found in ash deposits in and around the town of Pompeii. The remains of 332 bodies were found in Herculaneum.

Vesuvius has erupted at least 36 times since 79 AD. The next major event occurred in 203 and in 472; the eruption was so violent that ashfalls were recorded as far away as Constantinople. 40 years later, another major eruption occurred and was so severe that the King of Italy, Theodoric the Great, granted residents of the volcano’s slopes exemption from taxes. There was another eruption in the late 8th century and five more in a 68-year spell from 968 to 1036 which included its first recorded lava flows.

It became relatively quiet until December 1631 when a sudden eruption killed 3,000 people. Mount Vesuvius has erupted almost continuously ever since; the longest gap from 1680 to 1944 was a 34 year period of calm between 1872 and 1906. In fact, the 73-year gap at the time of writing is the longest since the 17th century. The 1906 eruption killed over 100 people and the 1944 event destroyed several villages. According to scientists, it could erupt at any time, and there are emergency procedures in place in case the worst happens. Incidentally, the Campi Flegrei volcano beneath Naples is also in danger of an imminent eruption according to experts.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Tragic Town of Pompeii and the Volcanic Eruption That Destroyed It
Pliny the Younger. The Famous People

7 – There is Only One Eyewitness Account

From a purely historical perspective, we are fortunate that Pliny the Younger was in the region at the time of the eruption because he is the only firsthand account available. Pliny was in Misenum which is across the Bay of Naples at the time. He wrote two letters to the historian Tacitus where he describes the nature of the eruption along with the final days of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

The Elder was with his nephew and decided to launch a personal fleet to help rescue people, in particular, a close personal friend. Pliny the Younger decided not to join the expedition. One of the letters to Tacitus includes details Pliny gleaned from those who witnessed his uncle’s actions. The second letter relates to Pliny’s own experiences after his uncle left Misenum.

When both Pliny’s were still on Misenum, they saw a dense cloud rising quickly above the volcano’s peak. After seeing this cloud and receiving a message requesting participation in a rescue mission, Pliny the Elder organized ships and joined the effort. Pliny the Younger tried to get back to everyday life, but the tremors caused him to leave the house in favor of the courtyard. Additional tremors caused panic on Misenum, and the inhabitants abandoned the town.

Pliny the Younger wrote about a black cloud that obscured the light, but he also witnessed flashes similar to sheet lightning. While in the water, the inhabitants of Misenum panicked again when the cloud obscured the island of Capri which was just across the bay. Pliny recalls being showered with hot ash and writes that he had to remove it quickly or else he would have suffered burns. When the pumice and ashfall stopped, Pliny and his mother returned home and awaited news of his uncle.

Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder encountered hot cinders and pumice, but instead of turning back, he reportedly said: “fortune favors the brave” and ordered his helmsman to continue towards Stabiae which was approximately 4.5 kilometers from Pompeii. The party was in grave danger the following day and as they tried to flee, Pliny the Elder sat down and could not rise, even with the assistance of his friends. He possibly died from a heart attack. His friends managed to escape by land.

Pliny the Younger suggests that his uncle died because his lungs were fatally weakened by exposure to a poisonous sulfurous gas that wafted above him and his friends. This seems unlikely because Stabiae was 16 kilometers from the vent and his friends were unaffected by the volcanic gases.


Sources For Further Reading:

New York Times – Brains Turned to Glass? Suffocated in Boathouses? Vesuvius Victims Get New Look

World Atlas – Pompeii Archeological Site: 10 Interesting Facts

Daily Art Magazine – Erotic Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum

History Collection – 10 People from Pompeii and Herculaneum Whose Lives Can Be Revived

The Independent – Prostitution In Pompeii: 2,000 Years After Explosion, Sex-For-Cash Is Still Rife

The Collector – Prostitution In Ancient Greece And Rome

Medium – How Prostitution Drove the Economy of Ancient Rome

Red Orbit – Ancient Romans Drew Penises On Everything, And Here’s Why

Oxford Open Learning – The Burial of Pompeii and Herculaneum