The 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous natural disasters in history. August 24th of that year will be remembered as the last day of the ancient city of Pompeii – the day that thousands of lives were lost and an entire city disappeared beneath the lava.
The eruption began in the early hours of August 24th, with violent tremors that shook the city. People were woken every 30 seconds by another seismic shock. Although experienced experts knew this could be the start of an eruption, the magnitude of the coming disaster was still far from their imagination.
Noises that sounded like thunder, accompanied by fiery clouds and clouds of thick dust, descended upon Pompeii and its environs. The sky turned dark then suddenly lit up as lava and hot ash rained down from above. Witnesses recalled that the night sky glowed orange from the eruption.
The majority of the casualties, who had not heeded the warnings to flee the city, were caused by the pyroclastic flows, or currents of hot ash, tephra, and volcanic gas, that traveled down the mountain at speeds close to 170km/h. For those unlucky enough to get too close, death came within minutes.
A 2,000 meter-high column of lava, fumes, and ash quickly engulfed the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Much of the destruction was due to the intense heat of the volcano’s discharge, which melted glass, calcified trees and even boiled the blood of the dead.
Nearby farm and sea animals faced a similar fate, as the blanket of ash smothered the fields and sea beyond. The particular composition of the ash – about 20 per cent of which was very fine – meant that it was not just deadly in the air but also on the ground.
The ever-thickening walls of ash eventually reached a height of 20 meters on some parts of the shore. As the pyroclastic flow covered the land, it laid an impenetrable blanket of gritty fine ash on the city – burying with it, a living monument of the Roman Empire.
The fallout and after effects
In the days following the eruption, ash and fumes continued to rain down on Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Survivors recounted the catastrophic effects, describing the dark clouds, pumice stones and hot ashes that filled the air and blocked out the sun. This deadly cloud was at its most powerful to the south of Mt. Vesuvius but its impact on the land was even more devastating.
The flow of ash totally overwhelmed the city of Pompeii in less than 24 hours, leaving it a lifeless wasteland. All trace of the civilization was wiped out and it seemed as if the city had been lost forever. But in the months following the eruption, archaeologists were amazed to uncover the ruins of homes, businesses and infrastructure that remained within the layers of ash. Many of the artifacts, homes, and structures were able to be preserved due to their being entombed in the volcanic material.
The archaeological remains found in Pompeii offered a glimpse of a by-gone world and one which will slowly start to fade away as the natural elements take their course. Villas and homes may crumble, artworks may weather and murals decline. This valuable legacy of the disaster will eventually be taken over by nature, leaving the world more aware of what happened on that fateful day.
Witness accounts of the eruption have been preserved through the centuries. One of the most well-known is that of Pliny the Younger who was living in Rome when the disaster happened. His letter, written to his friend Cornelius Tacitus, includes a description of the day the eruption began.
“[The sky] was not clear but covered with a dark and bluish cloud. It was not common thunder that we heard but rather a continuous roar. The whole atmosphere was not serene like before. When the sun went down it became darker and some stars were visible.” Pliny’s account refers toash that was raining down to the ground and a great plume of smoke visible in the distance.
Pliny’s story has become an iconic narrative of the era. Other accounts, such as those of Romans historian Suetonius, traveler Strabo, and Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, corroborate what Pliny wrote.
Reconstructing the Disaster
Experts have since been able to reconstruct the magnitude of the eruption and the extent to which it destroyed the city. Geologists and archaeologist have been able to recognize the presence of material from Mt. Vesuvius in the cities that surround the volcano. The remains of the ancient towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae have provided invaluable information used to reconstruct the series of events that led to the destruction of the cities.
Computer models have estimated that the eruption released a total of 100,000 kilotons of energy. Its magnitude was three times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the United States. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ash columns reaching a height of 30 kilometers, which was the highest ever in recorded history.
While the long-term effects of the eruption are still ours to wonder, its immediate impact was worse than ever expected and the disaster wiped out most of the city. The eruption killed an estimated 16,000 people, destroyed three cities and left a legacy that still stands today.
The legacy and International Recognition
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompei is one the world’s most widely recognized archaeological attractions. Scientists, archaeologists and historians have discovered and studied the near-perfectly preserved artifacts and structures left by the eruption and by the lost lives it took. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ash columns reaching a height of 30 kilometers, which was the highest ever in recorded history.
The tragic last day of Pompeii still stands as a powerful reminder of the deadly force of nature and the fragility of life. The artifacts, structures and stories of those who died in the eruption will continue to fascinate us and educate the generations which follow.
Safety Measures Taken Afterwards
In the aftermath of the disaster, safety regulations were put in place to ensure that such a disaster never happened again. New strategies were implemented to deal with potential threats posed by a volcanic eruption. One such goal was developing better monitoring systems for airspace and communities living near volcanoes.
Since then, volcanic eruptions have become increasingly monitored by satellites, sensors and private citizens. Volcanologists have also implemented drone-based surveillance and computer modelling to help predict activity and provide early warnings. The use of computer modelling has also been instrumental in learning more about previous eruptions and estimating the effects they may have had, as well as improving current warning systems.
The last day of Pompeii also brought public attention to the risk of living near a volcano. The eruption left many in shock and was a sharp reminder that life can change rapidly if we choose to ignore the warnings signals. The tragedy and the stories of courage and resilience, will remain with us for many years to come.
Memorials and Commemoration
The once bustling city of Pompeii has been a destination for cultural visitors since the days of the Grand Tour. Today, it stands as a Memorial for the victims of the 79 AD eruption, and for the lives lost in the disaster. Monumental statues and obelisks, have been built near the entrance to the city in memory of the deceased.
Various festivals and events that take place in the city pay homage to the those who perished. Poetry competitions and visual-art displays have been ongoing since the 18th century and keep the memory of the people’s lives alive. The last day of Pompeii is also remembered by other countries and cultures in forms of literature, films, theatre, and public discussions.
Additionally, cultural and educational centers have been set up in the city to inform visitors and locals alike, of the tragedy and its long-lasting consequences. Many of these centers now offer educational programs, archaeology and site-based classes. Visitors to the archaeological site will also find museums and guided tours that recount the life, art and culture of the ancient city.
Tributes to the Heroes of the Day
The last few days of Pompeii can be seen as a testament to courage and bravery. As the smoke and ash began its deadly descent, three key figures stood out as leaders on this final day. They are: Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, Lucius Pinarius Cornelius, and Marcus Nonius Balbus.
Lucius Caecilius Jucundus was the town’s most successful and influential businessman and owned many businesses within the city. On that fateful day, Jucundus’s ships were loaded with goods and even helped the citizens of Pompeii to escape. His actions are remembered in a Latin inscription found at the base of the Colossus of Pompeii: “Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, ship-owner supreme of the people of Pompeii, helped your fellow citizens, on the last day of his own life, with gifts of food, with transport of goods, with animals, plants and property, sending them on their way to safety.”
The two other figures were Lucius Pinarius Cornelius and Marcus Nonius Balbus. Both were important public officers who remained in the city right until the very end and worked to help organize the evacuation of its citizens. Marcus in particular, sent people on safe ships and made sure everyone had enough food and medical supplies.
These heroes are remembered as symbols of courage, resilience, and self-sacrifice during the last days of Pompeii. They have been the topics of many works of art, literature and poetry, and are still remembered today for their bravery.