Pompei e il Vesuvio, Carlo Pelagalli, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2009


In 79 A.D. a terrible eruption of Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii completely along with the towns of Herculaneum, Oplonti and Stabiae.

Vesuvius at that time was considered a dormant volcano, in the collective imagination of the surrounding population was represented as a friendly mountain whose slopes were lush orchards and vineyards that produce an excellent wine.

Mount Vesuvius was about 2000 meters high and was joined to the mount Somma in a unique top, that it appeared dry, flat and wide, surrounded by cliffs that made it difficult to access. In 73 BC Spartacus and his rebels, pursued by the Romans, took refuge on top, resisting the legions, and finally, down from the summit through a ravine so difficult that was not guarded defeated Roman troops.

The last major eruption of Vesuvius took place far in time, around 3800 BC, it was a major eruption Plinian type and arrived to cover the ash and lapilli also the town of Avellino.

Previews of the eruptions were some telluric phenomena. In 62 A.D. Was warned in an earthquake which destroyed several houses of Pompeii, after, in previous years to 79, they followed another several earth tremors.

On the morning of August 24, as Plinio the Younger wrote, but according to recent studies made on the basis of the discovery of a coin minted certainly after, the exact date is October 24, from the top of the volcano stood up a huge mushroom eruption, formed by ash and lapilli.

The inhabitants of Pompeii, that the night had experienced violent earthquakes, saw in the sky rising this huge cloud that flowed violently from the top of Mount Vesuvius and completely obscured the sky as if it were night.

Lapilli began to rain, many managed to save themselves by fleeing to the countryside. The rain of lapilli ended and the population, believing that the eruption was over, returned to the city to help the trapped persons and recover their property. Then a thick ash rain struck the cities of Pompeii and Oplonti and Stabia making a large number of victims. Pompei, Oplonti and Stabia were completely submerged by the ashes.

Herculaneum instead in the first 12 hours was not interested in the phenomenon, and therefore it was believed that the population was able to save himself. But the fungus eruptive, formed by hot and lethal gases, collapsed on itself and hit the town in full. There, the people left in the city died horribly. Recent findings have found that many residents of Herculaneum had taken refuge by the sea, in the caves used as remittance of the boats, even there they were joined by the hot gases of the eruption and were killed.

The phenomenon lasted for two days, the third day calm returned on an expanse of ruins and a wasteland of smoldering ash and lapilli having these completely covered the towns that were to the south-east of the volcano.

Eyewitnesses of the tragedy were Plinio the Elder, an expert naturalist, and his nephew Plinio the Younger who in those days were in their villa located in Miseno (Bacoli today). Plinio the Younger described the eruption in certain letters sent to his friend Tacitus. According to the precise descriptions of the phenomenon made by Plinio, this type of volcanic activity is today called “Plinian eruption.”

On the morning of August 24 (or perhaps 24 October) of the year 79 AD Plinio the Elder’s wife woke her husband to show him from the terrace of the villa a huge mushroom of smoke, fire and other eruptive materials that rose from the top of a mountain Vesuvius. Plinio the Younger says that the fungus was approximately high about 24 kilometers.

So Plinio the Younger, describing in a letter to his frien Tacitus what he saw from the roof of the house:

“It stood a cloud, but those who watched from afar could not specify from which mountain (they later knew that it was Vesuvius): no other plant more pine it could reproduce the form. It went up to suggest the idea of a high trunk, then it widened so that appeared as the branches.”

His uncle, Plinio the Elder, having received a message from Retina, wife of his friend Cesium Basso, who begged him to go and help them with a ship, being stuck them in Herculaneum, he sailed with a Trireme to save his friend and other people but, come near the shore of the town, the sea receded suddenly making it impossible to landing, then headed Stabia where he landed; In there he was hosted his friend Pomponianus.

Even Stabia in the night was hit by ash and lapilli and Plinio who had gone on the beach fearing that the friend’s house could be completely submerged by ash, because of breathing hot air mixed with ashes, he was found dead on the beach next morning.

Plinio the Younger described the death of his uncle in his letter to Tacitus:

“In my opinion, the air too full of ash must’ve stopped breathing blocking his throat, who by nature was weak, narrow and subject to frequent inflammation. When the next day returned to shine (He had seen three days ago for the last time), his body was found intact, unharmed, covered by the same clothes he was wearing at the time of departure; the appearance was that of a man asleep, rather than a dead man. “

The volcano after the eruption lost part of the central cone, the edge remained today is called Mount Somma, the height of 2000 meters was reduced to 1281 meters. The slopes of the mountain that were lush orchards and vineyards, after presented themselves completely barren.

Martiale describes Mount Vesuvius in his epigram: “Here Vesuvius earlier verdant shady vineyards, here grape fine maked to overflow the vats; Bacchus loved them most of the hills of Nysa; On this mountain the satyrs in the past broke their dances; This, of Sparta most pleasing, was the seat of Venus, this was the place known for the name of Hercules. Or all lies buried in flames and sad lapilli: now the gods would not that had been allowed to exercise them here so much power. “

This eruption was followed by other five eruptions, the last in year 1500, but for which there are no reliable evidence. In year 472 there was such a jet of ash that it reached the distant Constantinople. In year 1036 there was an eruption with lava jet, which was the first of this type of Vesuvius.

Pompeii was forgot, and nobody know the exact location, as long as some studies in 1748 and a series of excavations promoted by Carlo III of Bourbon and executed by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, uncovered the ruins of the ancient city. They were traced under a blanket of ash high 10 meters.

(Photo at the top: Pompei e il Vesuvio, Carlo Pelagalli 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0)