On the morning of August 24, A.D. 79, the Roman city of Pompeii was bustling like normal. Fathers were going to work in their shops, mothers were cooking and cleaning, and children were finishing their chores so they could go outside to play. But under the ground, something was churning and burning that would forever change this city. A nearby volcano, known as Mount Vesuvius, was about to erupt and Pompeii buried by ash!
Located near the sea on the western banks of Italy, Pompeii was a strategic port city. With a population of about twenty thousand, Pompeii was busy! But in a day and a half, it was buried by ash, along with nearby Herculaneum! If the people of that time had better understood the warning signs of a volcanic eruption, they might have been spared. But people that long ago had far less knowledge and capability to predict natural events than we have today.
August 24, 79 A.D.
So, in A.D. 79 nobody knew what was brewing in the peaceful-looking mountain of Vesuvius. The lurking volcano appeared harmless, with layers of lush, green landscape draped across it. The mountain provided enough vegetation for animals to graze unaware of their fate. Life was seemingly normal. But just before one o’clock in the afternoon of August 24, so much heat was building up under Vesuvius that the streams and creeks evaporated, animals grew restless, and the nearby sea heaved. Then the top blew! Red-hot stones and pumice shot over 100,000 feet into the sky. Smoke blocked out the sun, and the whole region shook.
To better understand what happened at Pompeii, let me explain a little bit about how volcanoes work. Miles underneath the surface of the earth, it’s hot—extremely hot! Sometimes it becomes so hot that rocks melt and gases are created. This hot melted rock is called magma. We call it lava when it spews out of a volcano. In most volcanoes, gases build up under the surface like a teakettle on a stove. At its boiling point, the volcano erupts to blow the top off the mountain, which allows red-hot lava to ooze out and burn up everything in its path. But at Vesuvius, something different happened.
Vesuvius—a Plinian Eruption!
The pressure under Vesuvius was so great that it blew the contents of the mountain 21 miles straight up into the sky—where it hung suspended for hours above the spewing gases! Though some of the debris solidified into porous rock called pumice and plummeted back to the earth, most stayed up in the sky. This natural phenomenon is called a Plinian eruption, named for Pliny the Younger, a Roman poet who wrote an eyewitness account of the disaster. He wrote this about a cloud of unusual size and appearance seen in the sky on August 24:
It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsup- ported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.
There is no doubt that the sky would have been a frightening sight. Since we know of only 15 or so Plinian eruptions that have ever occurred in history, it’s doubtful that the residents of Pompeii had any understanding of what they were seeing. In fact, the folks indoors may have first thought they were in another earthquake. But one look outside would have revealed much more. A red cloud hovered and glowed above Vesuvius like a giant mushroom, while light debris showered the streets. Of the thousands of people who lived there, most had time to escape if falling rocks didn’t hit them. Remember, there was very little hot lava to stop them because the majority of magma from Vesuvius was suspended 21 miles overhead! As fast as possible, thousands fled by boat, on foot, or on horseback. However, with ash falling from the sky at the rate of 6 inches per hour, many suffocated to death during the first wave of evacuation.
Pompeii—Buried by Ash!
What ultimately destroyed the region (and took the lives of thousands) was an avalanche of hot air and gases. You see, after about 11 hours, the pressure of the volcano weakened. As it cooled, the great column of ash and rock that hung in the air collapsed. Six different times the column surged downward from the sky, ripping through Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum) like a hurricane! Anyone who might have lived up to this point would have been killed instantly by the scorching heat and vapors. Twelve feet of ash buried the entire city of Pompeii. The harbor became impassable as ash turned the water to mush.
The fate of Pompeii and neighboring towns is like no other. Because of the amount of ash that fell and the general absence of hot lava, people were frozen in time like petrified statues in a museum. In the 1700s, local diggers discovered the town almost completely undisturbed. For example, a bakery was found with bread still in the oven. But most shocking, like giant fossils, shop owners, slaves, children, gladiators, and animals were found buried by ash in the exact positions in which they perished! Some people were found clutching their loved ones; others were found holding bags of jewelry and money. Most died with expressions of terror on their faces at the realization that they weren’t getting out.
If you were to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum today, you would learn a great deal about the way of life in ancient Rome. These cities of old have been uncovered to reveal a past life suspended in time. Archaeologists discovered ways to preserve the hollow, ash-covered bodies. What remained were three-dimensional representations of real people and their pets. It is a fascinating accomplishment.
Lessons from Pompeii
Why should we care so much about the study of the Romans? Weren’t they the“bad guys” who oppressed the Jews and persecuted the early Christians? Well, many Romans were guilty of such crimes, but not all of them were, of course. And good or bad, Western law and philosophy have been greatly shaped by the Roman way of thinking. So a day in the life of Pompeii is very interesting to historians. Besides that, the story is a sobering reminder of the uncertainty that life holds. Vesuvius remains an active volcano (and one of the world’s most dangerous) that is regularly monitored in hopes that it will never again do what it did in A.D. 79!
(As a side note to parents, I would not send children to research the fate of Pompeii on the internet without parental guidance. They would be likely to stumble on lewd, inappropriate artwork discovered in the ruins.)
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