Only two days ago, the people of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were enjoying the final days of the hot Roman summer. Views of Mount Vesuvius, with its steep cone shape, dominated the region, a seemingly innocuous backdrop surrounded by fertile fields and thriving vineyards. Pompeii was busy and vibrant, a bustling commercial centre in the heart of Campania south-west of Naples. Whereas Herculaneum was far quieter and residential, popular thanks to its warm, seaside location.
While the region is not unaccustomed to earthquakes, the warnings were clear, with tremors building in intensity over the previous days. Many left the area during this period but others remained, either unable or unwilling to leave. It is possible some may not have feared the shaking ground, unaware of the potential for destruction, choosing instead to continue with their daily lives.
The initial explosions were relatively weak but powerful enough to create an opening in the volcanic mountain, leading to a low plume forming over its peak. Shortly after, in the early afternoon, the more destructive eruption began with a large, narrow column of white dust shooting vertically into the sky. This dust was in fact pumice, small volcanic rock originating within the mountain. As the hours passed, the column continued to build, becoming progressively wider at the top. Wind blew the cloud of pumice in a south easterly direction where it fell, slowly blanketing the city of Pompeii.
The column briefly retreated, seeming to gather more intensity as it rose once again, further into the sky, perhaps as high as thirty two kilometres. At this time, the ejected pumice and small stones were grey rather than white. The top of the column branched out at its peak, forming a mushroom-shaped cloud. Lightning flashes, flames and glowing embers lit up the now darkened sky while the smell of sulfur permeated the air. Layers of grey pumice and ash continued to build over Pompeii, its suburbs and the surrounding villages.
While Pompeii was being enshrouded by falling debris, Herculaneum experienced a different fate. A hot avalanche travelled down the south western face of the mountain, rapidly engulfing the seaside city at its base. The majority of the city’s inhabitants were fortunate to have evacuated to safer locations but a few hundred were not so lucky. Residents who had taken refuge on the beach were unable to withstand the intense heat and choking air and perished in this initial flow. Slower moving avalanche-type flows followed, sealing the fate of Herculaneum by completely entombing the city under hot ash. Some of these flows moved past Herculaneum, continuing into the sea and permanently expanding the coastal plain by four hundred metres.
Throughout the first night, earthquakes became increasingly violent, causing panicked residents to flee their homes. Around day break, as the energetic flows entered the sea near Herculaneum, earthquake intensity peaked. It was around this time the appearance of the sea changed. The tide abruptly receded, leaving fish, seagrass and other marine life exposed to the morning sun, visible on the open sand which was once the sea floor. The water returned with force, meeting the newly formed coast, deposited by the mountain over the previous hours.
At this stage, the vertical column of pumice had mostly dissipated. Over the nineteen hours since the eruption began more than two metres of white and grey pumice and volcanic debris settled over Pompeii. With the column repeatedly rising and falling during this time, layers built up over the city with varying speed. The force of the weight of these layers crushed walls, roofs and other structures in its path. The decision to stay or flee would not have been easy but the result was the same either way. Inhabitants died from falling buildings, breathing in ash and strikes from larger pieces of pumice. A thousand or more may have succumbed during this period.
With powerful city walls deflecting the hot flows, Pompeii initially suffered only from falling debris. Unfortunately, the city was unable to resist the more violent surges that followed. The once cone-shaped mountain was now collapsing into itself, creating a deep, horseshoe-shaped crater from which the final flows erupted. These fast-moving wet flows appeared to be a mix of pumice, hot rock-like liquid and water, perhaps from an underground water source like an aquifer. This final eruption produced a dark, suffocating cloud over Campania, extinguishing the daylight as greater surges swept down the mountain, destroying the remaining buildings and interring the final inhabitants.
Now that clear skies have returned and the devastation comes to light, it is impossible to say what will become of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the once prosperous cities on the Gulf of Naples. Structures in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris while the resort town Herculaneum was covered virtually intact by impenetrable layers of thick cement-like ash. Personal possessions, valuables like jewellery and silver along with historic documents and books are buried within, unlikely to be recovered in the near future. Those unable to escape, interred within their homes, gardens and even the theatre, are likely to remain covered for thousands of years, if not eternity.
Note: This article was originally created as a university essay in my studies of natural hazards, written from the perspective of someone watching and reporting on the eruption of Mt Vesuvius from a distance. While not a typical academic essay, I enjoyed having the freedom to write a creative piece based on real events. It has always been a dream of mine to visit Pompeii and the region of Campania. My research on the events of the AD79 Mt Vesuvius volcanic eruption further fuelled my desire to visit. Ongoing archeological discoveries continue to reveal so much about the history of this region during Roman times and it’s exciting to know there is so much which remains uncovered.