Circa AD 19
South of Rome is the region of Campania, a part of Italy famous for its beauty, its fertility, and the 'charming coast', as Pliny the Younger called it, of the Bay of Naples, where the 4,000-foot bulk of Mount Vesuvius dominated every view. Vesuvius was a beautiful mountain, vine-clad almost to the summit, and surrounded by rich farms and houses; but the Roman geographer Strabo regarded it doubtfully.
The summit of Vesuvius was not beautiful. It was flat, bare, and the colour of ashes, strewn with sooty masses of porous rock which seemed to have been seared by fire. Strabo wrote, "…hence one might infer that in earlier times this district was on fire, and had craters of fire, and then, because the fuel gave out, was quenched. Perhaps, too, this is the cause of the fruitfulness of the country all round the mountain…"
Strabo apparently believed that Vesuvius had become extinct in prehistoric times, but the records of Rome indicated otherwise. In the portentous year of 217 BC, a year in which all Italy had been wracked by earthquakes, a shower of glowing stones, suddenly appearing from the south, had fallen at Praeneste, near Rome, while at Capua there was the appearance of a sky on fire. There were sun-darkenings and sky-glows, and according to the first century AD poet Silius Italicus, the cause was Mount Vesuvius.
"Vesuvius…thundered, hurling flames worthy of Etna from her cliffs; and the fiery crest, throwing rocks up to the clouds, reached the trembling stars."
However, after this Vesuvius became so quiet that the rebel gladiator Spartacus and his men, about 73 BC, were able to make their lair on the mountain.
Now subterranean forces were stirring again. On February 5, AD 63, a powerful earthquake shook Campania. Tremors were not uncommon in this region, but up to now the inhabitants had, as Tacitus says, "got off with a fright". This shock was more serious. Naples and Herculaneum were badly damaged, and the beautiful hedonistic city of Pompeii was wrecked.
After the earthquake, Campania quivered with constant tremors. They were not violent, but still caused damage, because they "shook things already shaken". The emperor Nero, giving his debut performance on the lyre at a theatre in Naples in AD 64, was interrupted by a sudden earthquake. After the audience left, the building collapsed. The emperor sought to believe that this was a sign of divine favour.
Bay of Naples and Vesuvius
On August 23, AD 79, a nocturnal earthquake shook Misenum and the surrounding countryside. Houses trembled, and the sea receded from the coast, but Campania by now was resigned to earthquakes.
The following day, August 24, Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder, was staying at Misenum, where he was in command of the Roman fleet. It was a fine, warm afternoon. The elder Pliny had sunbathed, taken a cold bath, lunched, and was working at his books when his nephew's mother came to tell him of an unusual cloud that was rising on the other side of the Bay of Naples.
Pliny put on his shoes and sought a vantage point. The strange cloud was obviously rising from some Campanian mountain, but it was not possible at this distance to tell which one. It had already reached a vast height, billowing upwards in the form of a column, while its summit spread out like the branches of a pine-tree. The philosopher Posidonius had said that the region of the atmosphere which held clouds, wind and mist reached only five miles above the earth. This cloud seemed to be already as high, and still growing.
The elder Pliny decided that it must be investigated immediately, and ordered a boat to be prepared. He asked his 17-year old nephew, Pliny the Younger, to come with him, but the young Pliny declined, saying he would rather study. Young Pliny seems to have been a rather stuffy youth, but perhaps he had already guessed the origin of the cloud, and had decided that discretion was the better part of curiosity.
Some writers have implied that the elder Pliny saw the cloud only as an unusual phenomenon, and did not realise until he crossed the Bay that he was heading into danger; but it seems evident from the younger Pliny's letters that the elder Pliny knew that the pine-tree cloud was from an erupting volcano, Even if he did not, the message he received as he left the house would have removed all doubt. Rectina, the wife of Tascius, whose villa was at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, implored him to rescue her. The elder Pliny changed his plans, "and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero."
Mount Vesuvius had given two warnings. There were to be no others. The first blast cloud reached a height of about fifteen miles. Already ash and debris were sweeping south-east and falling beyond Stabiae.
The elder Pliny had ordered several warships launched, and intended to carry out an evacuation. As his ships crossed the Bay, ashes fell thicker and thicker, followed by fragments of pumice and blackened stones. The elder Pliny "was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them." At the intended landing place the shore was blocked by volcanic debris. Pliny ordered the helmsman to make for Stabiae and his friend Pomponianus' house.
Meanwhile, the beautiful city of Pompeii was in trouble. About five feet of ash and pumice fell in seven hours. Already roofs were collapsing, but the inhabitants were still reluctant to flee.
At about 8 pm, a gigantic blast from the volcano sent an ash cloud twenty miles high. Ash and larger fragments rained down over a wide area south-east of Vesuvius.
Pliny the Elder had landed at Stabiae, and found Pomponianus terrified and ready to flee, but prevented by a contrary wind. Pliny sought to calm his friend's fears by a display of composure. He had a bath and then dined; "he was quite cheerful, or at any rate pretended he was, which was no less courageous."
Darkness was now total, except on the slopes of Vesuvius, where broad sheets of fire leapt into the sky. Pliny dismissed the flames, saying they were probably bonfires left by peasants, and retired to sleep.
Ashes mixed with stones were falling thickly. After a while, Pomponianus had had enough. He woke Pliny and asked what they should do. Outside was the rain of ash and debris. Inside, the house shook to constant earthquakes. At last they decided to seek escape by sea. The ashfall seemed lighter, and they tied pillows over their heads before venturing out.
The gigantic column of ash and dust above Vesuvius was beginning to collapse. At about 1 am on August 25th, a cloud of superheated ash, dust, and poison gas, slightly heavier than air, surged from the column and clung to the side of the mountain as it rushed downward and westward at a speed of over a mile a minute.
In less than four minutes it reached the small town of Herculaneum. Most of the inhabitants had fled to the shore, in vain. Hundreds were instantly overwhelmed and suffocated. A second blast about an hour later obliterated and buried the town.
At Misenum, Pliny the Younger had spent the night reading Livy, trying to ignore the earthquakes which were steadily increasing in violence. Just before dawn, a friend of his uncle arrived and asked in amazement why they had not fled.
With their house tottering, young Pliny and his mother finally joined the crowd of refugees leaving the town. The sea had retreated, leaving fish stranded on the sand. Across the Bay, "a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size."
A cloud like the two which had destroyed Herculaneum reached the walls of Pompeii at about 6.30 am. About 2,000 people were still there, though the ash was now over six feet deep and still falling.
About an hour later, two more expulsions of gas and ash, searingly hot, rushed down the volcano's flank, one five minutes behind the other.The first swept over Pompeii's walls and smashed the upper storeys of the houses. Everyone still in the town died a swift but terrible death. The second rushed over the ruins and bodies of Pompeii and reached the outskirts of Stabiae before exhausting itself.
At Stabiae, where the elder Pliny and his friends were trying to escape by sea, the darkness was intense. Soon, flames in the distance and an increasing smell of sulphur announced the approach of another volcanic blast. Pliny, who was resting and drinking water, was roused by his friends to flight. He struggled to his feet, supported by two slaves, then suddenly collapsed.
The younger Pliny, twenty miles away, saw the black cloud of this blast pour out over the Bay of Naples. Ashes began to fall thinly. Pliny's mother told him that he should save himself and not be encumbered by a slow old woman, but he refused to leave her.
Behind them another black cloud was billowing across the earth and into the sky. Just as young Pliny and his mother struggled off the road, an awful darkness fell. It was "not the darkness of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room."
Children cried, women screamed, and men shouted, trying to recognise loved ones by their voices. Some prayed to the gods, but others said there were no gods left, and eternal night had overwhelmed the world.
Now and again distant fires glowed. Ashes fell thickly, and Pliny and his mother had to shake themselves or else be buried." I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me," young Pliny wrote later to his friend Cornelius Tacitus, "had I not derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it."
But the eruption was almost over. Young Pliny saw the darkness thin to a smoky gloom. Then the sun appeared, dim and yellow. The countryside around was buried deep in grey-white ash. Pliny and his mother returned home, though the earthquakes continued, and awaited news of the elder Pliny.
Mount Vesuvius was quiet. Centuries of accumulated energy had been expended in two terrible days. Over 2,000 feet of the vine-clad mountain was gone, pulverised and collapsed. Only a ridge was left. The ashes of the shattered cone had reached Libya, Syria and Egypt and had darkened the sky at Rome.
Terrified survivors spread rumours of what had been seen during the cataclysm. They said, "huge men quite surpassing any human stature" had appeared on the mountain, "wandering over the earth day and night and also flitting through the air…and, moreover, a sound of trumpets was heard."
Vesuvius was a ruin, but it refused to subside back into sleep. According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, before the eruption, the mountain "was equally high at all points". Now it resembled an amphitheatre, and the collapsed centre sent up smoke by day and fire by night. "In fact, it gives the impression that quantities of incense of all kinds are being burned in it. This, now, goes on all the time…"
The body of Pliny the Elder was found three days after the eruption, and was buried by his nephew at Misenum. Campania, which the elder Pliny had called "a fertile region so blessed with pleasant scenery that it was manifestly the work of Nature in a happy mood", was covered with grey ash.
Campania would renew itself. So would Vesuvius.
VESUVIUS AD 79