What happened at Pompeii and Herculaneum?
The tragedy of Pompeii and Herculaneum is one of the most devastating natural disasters in the history of mankind. On 24th August 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted with tremendous force, engulfing the two densely populated Roman cities in an immense cloud of ash and pumice.
The events that befell the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were sudden and catastrophic. Being situated too close for comfort to the treacherous volcano, both cities were completely engulfed by hot pumice stone and superheated winds. The people had no way of escaping the ordeal as the eruption turned the two settlements into beds of hot ash.
The tragedy left behind archaeological proof of the suffering endured by its residents. The preserved skeletal remains of people, the carbonised household items, the fruit still on the trees and the desperate footprints of those who attempted to flee the disaster all paint a picture of the despair.
The archaeological discoveries have been invaluable to our understanding of the Roman era and lifestyle, with experts suggesting the ash and rock which firmly encased the towns may have served to preserve this history.
For example, over 1,800 different mosaic designs were discovered in Pompeii, as well as many artifacts which helped experts to understand the delicate artistry of the town’s inhabitants. Furthermore, at Herculaneum, about 1,800 carbonised wooden objects were found and studied.
In addition, the eruption marked the end of two of the most affluent and powerful cities in the Roman Empire, exemplifying the extreme power of Mother Nature. The loss of the two cities showed us not only her catastrophic strength, but also how she could erode away the dynamics of a civilisation in a matter of hours.
Nevertheless, the remaining artifacts also serve as a reminder that tragedy, however devastating, can create a unique insight into a person’s life. The tragic truth of human vulnerability, in the face of nature’s greatest forces, gives us an unforgettable perspective of that era.
Eruption of Mount Vesuvius
The city of Pompeii was founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, on the slopes of the fossilised volcano Mount Vesuvius. The inhabitants of Pompeii lived a comfortable life, enjoying Roman culture and the spoils of trade with the other Roman cities. The residents of Herculaneum, however, lived in luxury, being an exclusive district for the wealthy nobles.
Of course, life was not to last for the two towns, with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. With no warning of any sort, Vesuvius exploded with a blast that lasted for two days, accompanied by a stupendous 20 miles of flames and an immense cloud of ash.
Afterwards, for seventeen hours, an immense mass of burning lava descended on the town, destroying everything in its path and leaving Pompeii and Herculaneum frozen in time. The shockwave from the eruption resulted in such destructive earthquakes that the foundations of the houses in both towns were destroyed, leaving residents with no hope of escape.
The intense heat caused by the molten rock and ash melted the wooden buildings and set the loose debris ablaze. Victims of the catastrophe were encased in the pumice stone, unable to flee the vision of destruction that was befalling their small towns.
The total destruction of the two towns meant the inhabitants received no mercy from the volcanos wrath – rumours of a warning from Jupiter were false, as the destruction was instantaneous.
Aftermath of the Disaster
When the destruction had settled, the bodies of the victims were left incharred and preserved in the weeping ash, a reminder of the tragedy which had occurred.
The destruction was so catastrophic that it left the towns skeletal remains intact, allowing archaeologists to access the ruins and gather information. Over time, the ash had hardened and on observation, archaeologists realised the destruction had taken place very suddenly, as everyday objects such as loaves of bread and horses still remained.
The ash was also found to have encased the two cities which were frozen in time, yielding imperative evidence regarding Roman architecture and lifestyle. This unique insight into everyday Roman civilisation has been unmatched in any other excavation, as the molten hot ash prevented any form of destruction.
In the centuries since the eruption, cross-disciplinary research has produced a detailed record of both sides of the disaster, from eyewitness testimonies, to archaeological records and most recently, digital or 3D simulations of the disaster.
Unfortunately, the towns remain largely neglected and yet, it is important to remember the civilization that existed before the eruption. By preserving the remains of the cities and the artifacts produced by the townspeople, we can remember the sacrifices of the victims and the immense strength of nature.
Origins of the Towns
Both towns were founded in the 8th century BC and they have had an intertwined relationship ever since, as they provided mutual economic, political and military support – growing in both wealth and population simultaneously.
Throughout the centuries the Romans gradually occupied more land in the region, forming the provinces of Campania, Naples and Pompeii. The construction of public baths and aqueducts, public housing and paved roads satisfied the bustling population, who ensured the survival and prosperity of both towns.
The two towns also shared a special relationship and frequently worked together, symbolised by the wooden bridge built over the Sarno river linking them together. However, after 79 AD, due to the eruption of Vesuvius, both towns were buried in a giant grave, entombing the two cities in a blanket of ash and stone.
Detecting the Tragedy without Eye Witness Accounts
At first, the tragedy faced by the people of Vesuvius remained unknown to the rest of the world, with the disappearance of the two cities being attributed to numerous causes – all of which were untrue.
It was not until the early 1800s when the effects of the tragedy were finally uncovered, when French explorer François Sérusier initiated exploratory excavation into the remains of the two towns.
The excavations exposed the remains of the victims, allowing experts to discover the nature of the tragedy and the reality of what had happened. Whilst the remains of people and artefacts were discovered, it was the visual evidence and the layers of ash which provided the most insight into the true nature of the catastrophe.
Eventually, Sérusier’s quantitative records of the remains allowed a conclusion to be drawn which resembled that of the eye witness accounts hundreds of years before – Vesuvius had destroyed the two towns in a single eruption.
Victims of Vesuvius
While it is not 100% clear how many people died during the eruption, experts estimate that Pompeii and Herculaneum would have held a population of 20,000 to 30,000 people prior to the eruption.
Recent research by archaeologists have uncovered some of the victims of Vesuvius, more commonly known as the “Pompeiian Mummy”. This mummy was acquired in the 18th century and is the best preserved of the victims. The mummy is now kept on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
The mummy was discovered in 1625 in Herculaneum and is believed to have been a resident of Pompeii, as the mummy had two coins from the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius – a hint that the mummy had passed through or been in Pompeii at some point.
It is also likely the mummy was of high status due to the fact it was buried with a set of coins dated between 9 AD– 16 AD as well as the gold foil which encased it.
Synthesis of the Eruption
The eruption ofMount Vesuvius in 79 AD was an unparalleled tragedy and one of the worst natural disasters ever to have befallen two towns in the Roman Empire.
While Vesuvius may have washed away the towns in a violent wave of burning ash and rock, it has also left behind invaluable archaeological evidence which makes it possible to jump back in time, to view the towns and their inhabitants as if the eruption had never happened.
Skeletons, frescoes, tiles, jewelry and coins were all found in the ashen remains, encapsulated but perfectly visible. Additionally, the visual records left by experts gives us an irreplaceable insight into the lives of people from that era.
Legacy of the Eruption
The tragic events of the eruption will remain inmemory forever, however, the consequences of Vesuvius did not end there. The villages of Ercolano and Massa di Somma were created to resettle former residents and archaeologists later contributed to the growth of tourism industry in the area.
Today, Pompeii is amongst the most visited tourist site in Europe and every year more than three million tourists visit the site, in order to learn more and to pay their respects to the victims of Vesuvius.
Massive restorations and reconstruction efforts are undertaken to preserve the ruins of the cities and to make the sites more accessible to visitors. However, to ensure the sites are preserved for generations to come, the authorities have a policy of minimal intervention and experts must take special precautions to ensure that the ruins are not damaged.
Protection of the Sites
The catastrophe of Pompeii and Herculaneum was devastating, but shedding light on the tragedy has shown us how to protect the sites for future.to protect thetwo towns, their artefacts, and the people that inhabited them.
Due to the wealth of evidence, UNESCO classified them as a World Heritage Site in 1997, thus guaranteeing their international protection. With the sites now attracting up to three million visitors every year, it is important that the areas are carefully managed to avoid further damage.
Moreover, in recent years, a commitment to the preservation of the archaeological site has been backed up by intensive security measures, increased staff and monitoring systems to ensure the sites are both safe and preserved for future generations.
Overall, the tragedy of Pompeii and Herculaneum offers us stark insight into the power of nature and humankind’s vulnerability to its forces. From the horrific stories, to the somber remains, these towns reveal an undeniable truth, that we should appreciate every moment, before tragedy strikes and all we are left with is a reminder of our mortality.