On August 25, AD 79 the great city of Pompeii laid at the feet of Mount Vesuvius. It began with a light rumble that came upon the city, knocking off ceiling tiles and tipping jars from shelves. No one knew that the rumble was a sign that Mount Vesuvius would erupt. People went about their day. Adults were shopping in the forums. Children were playing in the courtyards.
Out of the 20,000 citizens who lived in Pompeii, 2,000 were slaves. Most Pompeiians were craftsmen or traders providing for themselves or their masters.
The people of Pompeii worshiped many gods and goddesses.They prayed for them in a public temple or a private shrine in their homes.
Most of the shopping and restaurants were located in a place called “The Forum”. Here the people enjoyed visiting with others as they went about their day.
Their diet consisted of bread, lamb, fish, and fruits including peaches, apples, pears, and grapes. They liked to drink goat milk and wine. The people consumed grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish, and chicken eggs. Only the rich enjoyed more expensive meat and salted fish.
In their free time, they enjoyed going to the public bath. There were separate quarters for men and women. Here, they could bathe in the hot waters, get a massage, and hear the latest gossip. In the central courtyard was a large exercise field.
Around 9:00 a.m., there was a small explosion of tiny ash particles that sprinkled the city. The ground continued to rumble. Gradually the larger chunks of pumice and rock began to fall on Pompeii.
At 1:00 p.m., an enormous cloud made of ash, pumus, and rock apeared over the top of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the younger watched from across the water and in a letter to Tacitus later wrote, “The cloud was shaped like an umbrella pine, with a long trunk that branched at the top. Soon, ashes were falling; hot and dense. Next came pumice stones, black and scorched by fire.”
Within thirty minutes the cloud was over ten miles high heading straight for Pompeii. The cloud was so dark it blocked out the sun. According to Pliny, “Soon the courtyards … filled with ash. The buildings swayed with heavy tremors. The sky turned blacker than night. Then flames and sulphur fumes sent everyone into flight.”
At 5:30 p.m., pumus and rock two inches in diameter began to fall on Pompeii. By 8:00 p.m. most all buildings had burned down or were buired by ash. By 12:00 a.m, the first story of the buildings were blocked by ash.
Two hours later, the second phase begins – six pyroclastic surges of hot gas and ash that blew down the mountain. Each surge was larger and spread farther than the one that preceded. The surges ranged in speed from 60 -180 mph. In the end, over 18,000 people died.
For over 1,500 years, people had forgotten about Pompeii. The ash that had buried the city provided good soil for farming olive trees and grapevines. Periodically, farmers and canal workers would uncover statues, beautiful marble, and brick walls.
In 1863 archeaologists found cavities which they poured plaster into to make a cast. This revealed the people had been caught by surprise and their bodies were buried in the ash and debris. Skeletons were also found.
Scientists discovered that “a person who died during the surge of hot gas and ash after dawn on the second day of the eruption was more likely to create a cavity in the volcanic material than someone who had died the first day during the pumice fall.” (Deem 2005) Soon the casts were put on display for all who visited.
Since then, about 60% of Pompeii has now been excavated. Though excavations have now stopped, the focus today is on restoration and perservation. Today there are more than two million people who come to visit the ruins each year.
Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano. Scientists are monitoring the activity to help warn the people who live in the vicinity. If the mountain were to awake, the hope is that the people could be evacuated in time.
- Caseli, Giovanni. In Search of Pompeii: Uncovering a buried Roman city. New York: Peter Bedrick Books. 1996.
- Damon, Cynthia (translated). Pliny Letter 2.16. http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/pompeii/PlinyLetters.htm
- Deem, James M. Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2005.
- Osborne, Mary, Pope. Pompeii Lost and Found. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2006.