Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD  

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Vesuvius in Eruption (1817-20) by William Turner
Vesuvius in Eruption (1817-20) by William Turner

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In the year 63, the volcano of Mount Vesuvius shook violently, and a good many houses were thrown down. But soon all became quiet again, and the people set about rebuilding the houses that had fallen. They continued to live in apparent safety for some time longer. But on August 24, 79 the volcano became spectacularly active.

Pliny the Elder was that day in command of the Roman fleet at Misenum, which was not far off. His family were with him, and, among others, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who has left an interesting account of what happened on the occasion. He observed an extraordinary dense cloud ascending in the direction of Vesuvius, of which he says: -- "I cannot give you a more exact description of its figure, than by resembling it to that of a pine tree; for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top into a sort of branches. It appeared sometimes bright, and sometimes dark and spotted, as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders.

On seeing this remarkable appearance, the elder Pliny, who was a great naturalist, resolved to go ashore and inspect more narrowly what was going on. Steering towards Retina (now Resina), a port at the foot of the mountain, he was met, on his approach, by thick showers of hot cinders, which grew thicker and hotter as he advanced -- falling on the ships along with lumps of pumice and pieces of rock, black but burning hot. Vast fragments came rolling down the mountain and gathered in heaps upon the shore. Then the sea began suddenly to retreat, so that landing at this point became impracticable. He therefore steered for StabiƦ, where he landed, and took up his abode with Pomponianus, a friend.

Meanwhile, flames appeared to issue from several parts of the mountain with great violence. Pliny nevertheless went to sleep. Soon, however, the court leading to his chamber became almost filled with stones and ashes; so his servants awoke him, and he joined Pomponianus and his household. The house now began to rock violently to and fro; while outside, stones and cinders were falling in showers. They, notwithstanding, thought it safer to make their way out from the tottering mansion; so, tying pillows upon their heads with napkins, they sallied forth. Although it was now day, the darkness was that of night. By the aid of torches and lanterns, however, they groped their way towards the beach, with a view to escape by sea; but they found the waves too high and tumultuous. Here Pliny, having drunk some cold water, lay down upon a sailcloth which was spread for him; when almost immediately flames, preceded by a strong smell of sulphur, issuing from the ground, scattered the company and forced him to rise. With the help of two of his servants he succeeded in raising himself; but he died due to his respiratory problems.


Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

La Civita

Nor was he alone in his death; for although many of the inhabitants of the cities were able to effect their escape; yet, so suddenly did the overwhelming shower of ashes, cinders, and stones fall upon them, that not a few of them perished in their dwellings or their streets. As for the cities themselves, they were utterly buried completely out of sight. For many centuries they remained entirely forgotten.

Appearance of the mountain before and after eruption

Vesuvius had undergone a great change. It was no longer flat on the top, but had formed for itself a large cone, from the summit of which dense vapours ascended. This cone was composed entirely of the ashes, cinders, and loose stones, thrown up during the eruption. It had become separated by a deep ravine from the remainder of the former summit, which afterwards came to be distinguished by the name Monte Somma. The whole of the forests, vineyards, and other vegetation, which had covered that portion of the sides of Vesuvius where the eruption took place, were destroyed.

Since the eruption of 79, Vesuvius has had many fits of activity with intervals of rest. In 472, it threw out so great a quantity of ashes, that they overspread all Europe, and filled even Constantinople with alarm. In 1036 occurred the first eruption in which there was any ejection of lava. This eruption was followed by five others, the last of which occurred in 1500. To these succeeded a long rest of about a hundred and thirty years, during which the mountain had again become covered with gardens and vineyards as of old. Even the inside of the crater had become clothed with shrubbery.

Discovery of remains of Herculaneum and Pompeii

excavations of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae

Of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii no traces were discovered till the year 1713, when some labourers, in digging a well, came upon the remains of Herculaneum about 8 m (24 ft) underground. Little attention, however, was paid to the discovery at that time; but in 1748 a peasant, digging in his vineyard, stumbled on some ancient works of art. On sinking a shaft at this spot to the depth of 4 m (12 ft), the remains of Pompeii were found. This discovery led to further researches, and the exact positions of the two cities were erelong ascertained. The work of disinterment has continued with little interruption from that to the present time.

See also

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