Pompeii, Italy: the memory of the tragedy of an entire city

History of the destruction of Pompeii

History of the destruction of Pompeii

The history of the destruction of Pompeii shows that the catastrophe began in the year 79, in the afternoon, on August 24 and lasted for two days. The eruption of what was then believed to be a dormant volcano, Vesuvius, destroyed everything. Then not only Pompeii, but also three other cities – Stabia, Oplontia and Herculaneum – were buried under the lava.

For 1500 years, Pompeii remained buried underground, until in 1599 during the construction of the underground canal from the river Sarno discovered part of the ancient city wall.

From there, the city had to wait another 150 years, until in 1748 its excavations were resumed again under the leadership of the Spanish military engineer Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre. This time the surface revealed not only well-preserved everyday objects (helped by the lack of air and moisture underground), but also entire buildings.

Day One – the beginning of the tragedy

The elements spared the city of Pompeii until the next day. The townsfolk did not pay attention to the black cloud of ash and gas that rose over the volcano Vesuvius and slowly moved towards the city. Alarm began to build as flakes of ash began to cover the roofs of houses, sidewalks, flowers, and tree tops. The ash covered the white clothes and had to be shaken off all the time; the colors of the city dimmed, merging into a gloomy gray background.

Many of the inhabitants sought shelter from the ash in the houses, where the poisonous sulfuric fumes penetrated. Under the weight of the ash, the roofs of the houses collapsed, burying the occupants. Many died without finding the courage to leave valuables behind. During excavations, people were found with bags full of gold and precious jewelry. The tremors caused by the earthquake were accompanied by continuous shocks. The shuddering solid rock overturned carts, shattered statues, destroyed the walls of houses, and covered fleeing citizens with tiles. Stones began to fall from the sky following the ashes.

The details of Pompeii’s death are known from the letters of the famous Roman scholar Pliny the Younger, who stayed at Miseno, the estate of his uncle, also a famous scholar, commonly referred to as Pliny the Elder. Young Pliny had the misfortune to find himself on the shore of the Bay of Naples just 25 km from Vesuvius. He described the eruption in a letter to Tacitus, narrating at the latter’s request the death of a relative, and as a result provided posterity with an important scientific document.

“The uncle was at Mizen and was personally in command of the fleet,” Pliny the Younger wrote. – He died in a catastrophe that destroyed the beautiful region along with the towns and population. On the 9th day before the September calendars, at about 7 o’clock, he saw a cloud of unusual size and appearance. Those who watched from afar could not tell which mountain it had appeared over, but they recognized much later that it was Vesuvius. Uncle had already basked in the sun, doused himself with cold water, had a snack, and demanded his sandals to go up to a place where he could better see the amazing phenomenon.

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The cloud was shaped like a pine tree: a tall trunk with branches radiating out in different directions. It might have been ejected by the air current, but then the force weakened, and the cloud spread wide from its own gravity. The color of the cloud, filled with earth and ash, varied from bright white to dirty brown. The phenomenon would have seemed significant and worthy of the closest scrutiny of any scholarly person. My uncle ordered the ship to be prepared and invited me to go with him. I replied that I preferred to take up writing.

He was about to leave the house when he received a letter from Rectina, the wife of Tascius, who lived in a villa under a mountain from which only the sea could save her. The frightened woman asked him to help her out of her dire situation, and my uncle changed his plan. What the scholar had begun, the man of great souls finished: he ordered a ship to be brought in, and he himself went up on deck, intending to provide help not only to Rectina, but to many others, for the coast was densely populated. He hurried to where others had fled, keeping a straight path, aiming directly at the center of danger, and was so free from fear that, catching any change in the outline of the pole, he ordered all details to be noted and written down.”

The scholar did not yield to the entreaties of the navigator, though he hesitated to turn back, but nevertheless ordered the boat to Stabia, to the house of a certain Pomponian. Throughout the perilous journey Pliny the Elder consoled the frightened passengers, put his arm around their shoulders, coaxed them, wishing to ease their fear with his calmness. On his return, he ordered himself to be taken to the baths, washed, settled down on a bed and had a tasteful dinner, constantly pretending to be cheerful.

The testimony of the ancient writer Dion Cassius, a later author, who used an unknown source, but was well aware of the consequences of the eruption outside Campania, survives:

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History of the destruction of Pompeii

“A violent earthquake began. The whole area around the volcano trembled and the top of the mountain shook. The earthquake sounded like thunder… The sea rumbled… Suddenly there was a great crash. Huge stones flew from the mouth of Vesuvius…Flames and thick smoke rose high and the sun disappeared. The day turned to night, and clouds of ash rose into the air. It covered the land and the sea, and covered the two cities completely. The dust was so heavy that it reached as far as Africa and Egypt. In Rome the clouds of dust in the air obscured the sun.

In Pliny the Younger’s account, on the first day of the catastrophe:

“ashes fell on the ships, and the closer they came, the hotter and thicker the air became. Chunks of pumice were falling, black burnt fragments of rock, already almost burying the shoal and blocking the shore, access to which was blocked by the landslide. In many places fire spilled out of the volcano, shooting upward, especially bright in the darkness of the night. My uncle kept saying, trying to reassure the frightened people, that the villagers had forgotten to put out the fire in a hurry and that the abandoned farmsteads were on fire.

Then he went to rest and fell into a sound sleep: his breath, a large man, came out with a heavy snore, and people who passed by his room heard the sound. The landing from which they entered the outhouse was already so covered with ashes and pieces of pumice that it would have been impossible for a man who had lingered in the bedroom to get out. Uncle was awakened and invited to take part in the council, where they discussed the question of whether to stay indoors or go out into the open. The scientist made reasonable arguments; the rest were dominated by fears.”

By the time negotiations were underway, the buildings were shaking with frequent and violent tremors; the underground elements were shifting them out of their places, moving them sideways, and bringing them back again. Light, porous pieces of pumice fell from the sky. People defended themselves against the falling stones with pillows and towels tied to their heads.

The threat became clear gradually, for the catastrophe began with light ash that was enough to shake off clothing and hair. Seeing the pieces of pumice flying from the sky, people sensed the danger, but they took real rescue measures too late. Poisonous fumes enveloped the city of Pompeii; they penetrated every crevice, crawled under cloaks, bandages, and handkerchiefs, constricted breathing, and caused tears and coughing. Trying to get a breath of fresh air, people ran out into the street, were hit by a hail of lapilli, and returned in horror. Ceilings collapsed in houses, burying those who sat huddled under stairwells, hiding in galleries, begging the gods in vain for forgiveness.

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When any volcano erupts, lumps of old and fresh lava, as well as rocks foreign to the volcano, are ejected along with the ash from the vent. Small, rounded or angular fragments of this substance – lapilli (from the Latin “lapillus” – “pebble”) – fall like hail, covering the earth with a loose layer of volcanic mass. At the eruption of Vesuvius most of the stones were barely the size of a walnut, though sometimes rocks up to 30 cm in diameter were encountered. Even when hardened, they are not difficult to remove with simple tools. This is the substance that filled Pompeii, though to a much shallower depth than Herculaneum.

Contrary to the assertion of ancient authors, the elements did not take the townspeople by surprise. Vesuvius awoke in the early morning, and the stone rain did not come until noon. People had enough time to leave the city, and many did so. According to the findings, less than a quarter of the city’s 10,000 inhabitants died. The population of the city of the dead was made up of those who rushed to the rescue of household goods or simply decided to wait out the danger by leaving home too late. The dead were the elderly, the lost children, and the slaves left behind by their masters to watch over their belongings.

The second day of the disaster.

With difficulty, people struggling through piles of small stones fell without strength, fainted or slowly suffocated, buried alive under the hot ashes. It was no coincidence that many of the dead were found in its upper layer. The next morning greeted those left behind with utter darkness, the air became hot, and the city was completely hidden under a 7-meter layer of lapilli and a 2-meter layer of ash that covered it.

“The day came, dusky, as if exhausted, blackest and densest of all nights,” Pliny the Younger continues in his letter to Tacitus, “though the darkness was dispersed a little by torches. It was the first hour, when we decided to go ashore and look around. The buildings were shaking. We were standing in the open, but even in the dark you could see that everything around us was crumbling. Lots of people were pushing and shoving each other. Many outlandish and horrible things had happened in the city. The wagons we had ordered to be sent forward were tossing from side to side in a brand new place, though we propped them up with rocks. The sea was still rough and hostile. We could see it pulling in, and the land, shaking, pushing it away. The shore was moving forward, leaving the sea animals lying on the sand.

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Like many others, my uncle lay down on a spread sail and asked for cold water. The fire and the smell of sulfur, which heralded the approach of fire, drove the others to flee, and he was lifted to his feet. He stood up, leaning on two slaves, and immediately fell down, for the thick fumes took his breath away, and closed his windpipe: which was naturally weak, narrow, and often sore.

The great black thundercloud flashed and ran in zigzags of fire, it split in long streaks of flame that looked like lightning, but of unprecedented magnitude. In a few hours the cloud began to descend, covered the sea, girdled and concealed the island of Capri, swept the Cape of Mizena out of sight. Ashes were falling, but rare at first. I looked round and saw that a thick darkness was coming upon us, like a torrent that spread over the earth.

History of the destruction of Pompeii

The frightened young man suggested that his companions turn before they were run over by the crowd. Then they all found themselves in a darkness similar to that of a room when the lights go out suddenly. The helpless people heard women’s cries, men’s voices, children’s cries: some calling for their parents, others for their children, wives looking for their husbands, who in the general confusion could not find their wives.

Perhaps at that time the people realized that doom was inevitable. According to Pliny, “They mourned their own deaths, some cried out in terror for the speedy deaths of their loved ones, many raised their hands to the gods, but most said they were gone and the world was in its final, eternal night. As it grew a little lighter, we saw that it was not dawn, but an approaching fire. It stopped in the distance, and darkness set in again.

Ashes sprinkled in a frequent, heavy rain. We kept getting up and shaking it off, or we would have been overwhelmed and crushed by its weight. The gloom eventually began to dissipate, turning into smoke and fog. Soon it was real day, and even the sun glinted, but yellowish and dim, like an eclipse. The people, numb with terror, saw a very different world around them. Everything was covered, as if with snow, with deep ash. Pliny’s letter ended with the words: “…I have passed on all that I have witnessed myself and heard from those who remember well how it was.

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Day Three – Buried Cities

Faint daylight returned on the third day after the volcanic eruption began. Pliny the Elder’s body was found on the shore: the scholar lay fully clothed, uninjured, and more like a sleeper than dead. Two days later, the sun was shining and the sky was blue over Campania again, but Pompeii and Herculaneum had already ceased to exist. The fields of the happy land were covered with lava and ash, the buildings reduced to ruins. No human voices, no barking dogs or birdsong disturbed the silence. Only Vesuvius survived, with a thin column of smoke billowing over its summit, just as at the beginning of Pompeii’s fall.

After Pompeii’s demise.

Soon after the volcano subsided, the surviving inhabitants returned to the site of the disaster. People were digging up houses, in an attempt to find the remains of dead relatives, the most valuable belongings, and the tools needed to settle in a new place. A deeper penetration was conducted at the forum, where the main valuables were located. By order of the city authorities, works of art, fragments of architectural decoration, statues of gods, emperors and famous citizens were taken out of the main square.

On the part of the Roman government no real measures were taken to help the victims of Pompeii’s demise. Emperor Titus appointed a senatorial commission, which dared to disregard the decree that allowed “the property of the dead to be used for the revival of Campania, if they had no heirs. Streets and houses were left under ashes, and the surviving inhabitants found shelter in other Italian cities. Years passed; the wounded earth was covered with a layer of soil, and meadows and gardens bloomed again in the desolate valley. In a few centuries no one remembered the lost cities anymore. The name La citta is an echo of the area’s former prosperity, but the word “town” is taken as a mockery of the desolate landscape.

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Covering a total area of over 65 hectares, Pompeii today is the world’s largest archaeological park and architectural monument and has been a popular tourist destination for 250 years. The buried alive city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year it is visited by 2.5 million tourists.

Vesuvius, estimated to be 17,000 years old, remains the only active volcano on the European mainland. Scientists estimate that the volcano has erupted about 100 times in total, but only a few eruptions have surpassed the ’79 eruption. The thermal energy released by Vesuvius during the eruption was 100,000 times the energy from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima!

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