Pompeii was a bustling trade city of over 11,000 people near the Bay of Naples in Italy. In 79 A.D. a devastating natural disaster occurred when the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted and blanketed the city in ash and rock. Those trapped in the city died instantly or in the chaos of the eruption.
The magnitude of the eruption and its devastating effects have been studied for centuries. Joanne Berry, a volcanologist at the Open University and an expert on Vesuvius, dives into the science and history behind the eruption, “Around 79 AD, the mountain erupted spewing volcanic gases into the atmosphere. This released a series of pyroclastic flows – lethal avalanches of hot ash, rocks, and lava—that overwhelmed the town…”
These events created some of the most iconic archaeological remains in the world as the town was preserved in the ash, but how did the people of Pompeii die? Analyzing the remains of the victims has revealed some shocking answers.
The eruption killed the town in a matter of days. Eventually the ash, up to 15-20 meters deep, preserved the remains of the dead. Many perished in their homes, however, the bodies of some victims indicate that they tried to outrun the volcanic flows. In some cases, the remains of victims suggest evidence of extreme heat. The sudden, intense heat produced by the volcanic matter killed those unlucky enough to be too near. Most of the victims succumbed to asphyxiation when Vesuvius spewed a high-pressure cloud of sulfur dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere.
In 2017, archaeologists discovered the remains of a man whose death was particularly gruesome. He was found in a foetal-like position, crouched between two door frames, his hands pushing against the door frames, with his upper body bent forward. According to Wolfgang Behringer, a professor of classics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, this man had died from the density of the gas cloud that suffocated him and his body had slumped forward. This is known as the ‘pugilistic posture’, most likely an attempt from his body to take in air, as the thickness of the cloud made it difficult to breathe.
Other victims show signs of horrific facial expressions as evidence of the agonizing death they faced asphyxiating in their own homes. These facial expressions, known as ‘the grimaces of Pompeii’, can still be seen on the plaster casts of the victims, the expressions of terror are both distressing and heart-breaking.
Broader Effects of the Eruption
The catastrophic effects of the eruption of Vesuvius were not just restricted to the townspeople of Pompeii. Vesuvius was an extremely powerful eruption, and its effects were felt far and wide. The eruption created a volcanic winter that led to multiple years of temperature and weather fluctuations.
The disastrous destruction of this volcano was due to its ventricular fault system, which allowed it to erupt much more powerful volcanoes compared to those generated from other systems. Its sheer power and destructive force caused further destruction when the pyroclastic flows reached nearby Herculaneum, destroying everything in its path.
The destruction of Herculaneum was so severe it undermined its inhabitants’ understanding of the world. For centuries, people had associated the destruction of Pompeii with the eruption of Vesuvius, however, only recently have we realized the depths of destruction caused by this volcanic eruption.
The people of Herculaneum were completely unprepared for the force of the pyroclastic flows and its effects on their city.
The destruction of both Pompeii and Herculaneum impacted the environment significantly. As Vesuvius erupted, it dispelled a magnitude of ash particles, gases, and acidic rain into the air. This air pollution caused extensive damage to vegetation and wildlife in both regions.
In the aftermath of Vesuvius’ eruption, the region suffered from soil erosion, acid rain, and other environmental issues related to air quality. In the face of such destruction, the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were left to rebuild their lives in an environment that had suffered tremendous damage.
Due to the long-term effects of the eruption on the environment, the people of these regions had to learn to adapt to their new environment and develop new ways of farming and subsistence practices.
These same effects can still be seen in affected areas today. Due to the acid rain and air pollution caused by the eruption of Vesuvius, the soil fertility in the region has drastically declined, leading to lower crop yields. In addition, the air quality in the region is still considered unhealthy due to elevated levels of particulate matter.
In the years since Vesuvius’ rampage, science and research have greatly expanded our knowledge of the volcano and its effects on the local population. The real-time documentation of the development and fall of Pompeii and Herculaneum has also provided an invaluable source of information for archaeologists and historians in their ongoing study of the region.
Modern science and research have revealed new insights about Vesuvius’ eruption. For instance, recent studies have determined that the eruption of the volcano was much larger than previously believed and the simultaneous volcanic winter it triggered only worsened the effects of the eruption.
In addition, modern research has allowed us to precisely measure the intensity of the flow and its effects on the local population. The ongoing research and study of the region has enabled us to gain a far greater understanding of the events that took place and the lasting effects of the eruption.
Cultural and Historical Significance
The events that occurred during the eruption of Vesuvius have left both a deep cultural and historical impact upon the local population. As Vesuvius shook the region, it undoubtedly left an indelible mark upon the region’s inhabitants, both those who perished in the initial eruption and those who survived it.
Today, the events of this tragedy are remembered through the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have become symbols of the disaster that occurred on that fateful day. In addition, many of the artifacts found in the region have become iconic symbols of the region’s cultural and historical heritage and are seen as a homage to the victims of this devastating event.
The eruption of Vesuvius has left a deeply scarred citizens of the region, and its effects are still felt today. In recent years, the Italian government has enacted measures to enhance safety, such as early warning systems and evacuation plans, in order to mitigate the effects of a potential future eruption.
The Eruption’s Eternal Inspiration
The devastation caused by the eruption of Vesuvius has been a source of inspiration for many artists and writers for centuries. The tragedy has served as a source of inspiration for Francesco Saverio Nitti, who wrote a book about the region and its inhabitants which was later adapted into an opera; and philosopher Ugo Foscolo, who included the events of the eruption in his novel I Sepolcri.
The impact of the events of this day has also served as a source of inspiration for filmmakers, such as the classic film Pompeii released in 2014. In recent years, the eruption of Vesuvius has been the subject of multiple video games, such as the highly successful video game franchise The Last Days of Pompeii. These games have served to bring the tragic events of this day to life for a new generation.
It is clear that the events of Vesuvius’ eruption will continue to live on through art, literature, cinema and video games, forever remembered and commemorated as a symbol of loss and tragedy.
Education and Outreach
Despite its devastating effects, the eruption of Vesuvius has a bright side – education. By leveraging new technologies, experts and museums have used the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum to develop programs that educate the public about this event.
For instance, the Herculaneum Conservation Project offers educational programs for schools, universities, and other institutions. In these programs, students learn about the history and archaeology of the region, as well as the cultural and social dynamics of the period. Such educational opportunities are invaluable in ensuring that future generations are aware of the very real potential of natural disasters.
In addition, more general educational programs about Vesuvius’ eruption such as presentations, guided tours, and videos are offered by the Pompeii Archaeological Park to inform the public about the event and its lasting effects.
It is clear that education and outreach are essential in ensuring that the events of Lasst Days of Pompeii are not forgotten. Furthermore, these initiatives are helping to ensure that future generations are aware of the real dangers posed by natural disasters.