This blog is literally about the darkened sky and pyroclastic flows that erupted from Mount Vesuvius onto the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. Most people know the basic facts about the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum on the fateful days of August 24 – August 25 AD 79 but not all of the fascinating details that accompany this historic and unsurpassed natural tragedy.
The City of Pompeii
Pompeii was a thriving, prosperous city in AD 79 and in fact, had been for 200 years prior to the eruption of the infamous volcano. It was a flourishing resort for vacationers for Rome’s most distinguished citizens. Bath houses, expensive villas, wine-making, trading companies, and live entertainment in the form of battling gladiators (who weren’t always slaves), were the order of the day. Slaves were owned by the wealthy, who were plentiful. It was common for women and men to be attired in the finest cloth, own slaves and to be adorned in priceless jewelry.
Four Days before the Eruption
17 years before the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, a major earthquake had devastated Pompeii. In fact, by the time the volcano exploded parts of Pompeii were still under construction. Four days before the volcanic eruption small earthquakes were felt on a continual basis throughout the city. However, no one took notice. Slight earthquakes were a natural part of life in the city, although not to the extent that preceded the tragedy. There were sputterings from the volcano, including dark ash that silhouetted the sky. In spite of this activity no one was alarmed, most likely because ancient Romans were unaware of the connection between earthquakes and volcanic activity. Mt Vesuvius and its surrounding region were heralding a poignant warning that the citizens of Pompeii simply ignored.
August 24 – August 25 AD 79
At some point during the day, a gigantic explosion erupted from Mt Vesuvius, filling the sky with molten lava, pumice stones and thermal energy that was 1,000 times more intense than that of the bombing of Hiroshima. Some people went into panic mode and began to gather up as many belongings as they could carry. They rushed to the shores of the Bay of Naples and managed to escape by boat. Most people however were not as fortunate. Not everyone panicked after the incredible eruption, even when the city was blackened and without sunlight due the volcanic ash. Some were quite convinced that the eruption, although significant, wouldn’t do any serious damage to the city. Many of these people kept on about their usual routines, eating, bathing and getting massages. Others panicked and retreated to their villas – a deadly mistake.
The majority of people who died after the eruption did so due to pyroclastic flows, fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock, that flowed in speeds up to 700 km/h, and reached impressive temperatures of 1000 degree Celsius. It’s safe to say that the people of Pompeii died quickly, if not pleasantly.
Buried within the ash fall were the inhabitants. A shell of pumice that allowed them to slowly decay in the usual way covered those who perished in the early stages of the eruption. Hence, they decomposed and decayed to skeletal remains. However the bodies of victims of the pyroclastic surges had a different fate. The fine ash fall encased their bodies, hardening to form a porous shell. As the ash hardened it captured and preserved their final postures at the moment of death.
Scientists use techniques such as 3D-CT scans to investigate then preserve the body casts. They serve as morbidly beautiful profiles of one of the most tragic volcano eruptions in Roman history.