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A volcano is, in simplest forms is an opening in the earth’s crust. Where lava, volcanic ash, and poisonous gas’s escape from. From a distance, volcanos usually have a similar look to a large mountain, with only the opening at the top a variance in appearance. There are three types of volcanos active, dormant, or extinct. Active Volcanos are defined by being the most recent eruptions, usually ranging in eruptions less than 10, 000 years ago. Dormant volcanos, on the other hand, have had a long time since their last eruption, usually past 10, 000 years but it is likely they will erupt again. Extinct volcanos will never erupt again, becoming more of a mountain than a dangerous volcano.
Mount Vesuvius has a long history, dating back thousands of years before humans ever encountered it. Scientists have researched its age, finding ancient debris of rock on the volcano which confirmed the volcano’s age being around 300,000-400,000 years old. Hard to imagine isn’t it? Although the 79 A.D. incident is the volcano’s most famous eruption, it has been through numerous flare-ups.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and the destruction of Pompeii
The day had started like any other in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Shops were open, markets were busy and citizens were gathering in the forum to discuss politics and business. Although an earthquake had rocked the city some 17 years earlier, the ever-growing population had no cause for concern as they went about their daily lives. Investment money had led to great renovation works across the city, which had now grown quite prosperous. The future looked bright for this bustling Roman metropolis.
Never in their darkest nightmares could the 15,000 citizens of Pompeii predict the cruel hand that fate was about to deal their beloved city that day. Situated in the Bay of Naples in the Campania region of Italy, the people of this region lived in the shadow of a sleeping giant, Mount Vesuvius. The Romans knew it was a volcano but they were completely ignorant to the extent of its destructive power. They also fatally believed it was extinct. The catastrophic events of 24 August 79 AD would demonstrate how wrong that belief was.
For four days before that fateful date, the surrounding populations had felt small earthquakes, which had increased in frequency as the days went on. The warning signs were there but the Romans in this region had become accustomed to such seismic activity. According to Pliny the Younger, the only eyewitness to leave behind a surviving written document of the events, such minor earth tremors were frequent in Campania. On this occasion, however, they represented something far more sinister the sleeping giant was rousing.
Every second one and half million tons of volcanic debris spewed into the atmosphere.
The pressure exerted by the molten rock underneath the volcano was increasing to such a point it would soon have nowhere to go but up. At 1 pm on 24 August, Mount Vesuvius announced its awakening with a violent eruption.
An enormous dark cloud shrouded the blue sky above the volcano. The column of volcanic pumice, hot gasses and ash, pushed upwards of 9 miles into the atmosphere and spread across the skyline like black ink on blotting paper. Pliny described its general appearance as ‘like an umbrella pine tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.'
Every second one and half million tons of volcanic debris spewed into the atmosphere, regurgitated from the fiery depths of the raging giant. That day, Mount Vesuvius released over 100,000 times the thermal energy of the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.
It didn't take long for the dark cloud to travel the five-mile distance to Pompeii. The city soon found itself enveloped in darkness as molten rock, pumice stone and hot ash began to fall from the sky. Some people fled towards the sea, others into the nearby countryside. Many decided to huddle inside their homes in the vain hope of riding out the storm. The first deaths in Pompeii were recorded at this stage as the flat roofs of buildings and houses began to collapse under the weight of the ash and volcanic debris, crushing those unfortunate souls who dwelled within their walls. Rocks falling from the sky claimed the lives of others. Gradually the city became buried under ash and debris to a depth of almost 10m.
Although located some 3 miles closer to Mount Vesuvius than Pompeii, the small wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum managed to dodge the majority of the ash and pumice fall from the first eruption, thanks to prevailing winds blowing the volcanic cloud southeast towards Pompeii and the surrounding area. The apocalyptic scene unfolding in front of their eyes, however, was enough to convince the majority of the citizens of Herculaneum to flee from their city. They were the wise ones, as Mount Vesuvius was far from done yet.
Around 1 am, twelve hours after the volcano had roared into life, the eruption moved into its second and most lethal phase. The column of debris and gas now reached some 20 miles high and began to weaken under its own weight. In the early hours of August 25th, the column collapsed as the gasses densified and could no longer support their solid contents. The destructive cloud began to race down the sides of the volcano. This was the first of six pyroclastic surges that would fall from Mount Vesuvius that day.
It raced towards the town of Herculaneum at speeds over 100mph. Those unfortunate to be swept up in its wake died instantly of heat exposure, as temperatures within the surge soared to around 250°C. For years historians believed that Herculaneum was mostly abandoned by the time the surges came, due to the low number of skeletal remains discovered in the town. However, in the 1980s up to 400 well-preserved skeletons were discovered in boathouses near the seawall of the town, demonstrating that not everyone had decided to evacuate. When it was over, Herculaneum was buried under 75ft of volcanic material.
It was certain death in a fraction of a second for every living thing that resided in Pompeii at that time
As the sun began to rise on the second day of the eruption, the ashfall on Pompeii began to ease. Citizens within the city limits believed it was all over and some of those who had fled even began to return to their homes to gather what was left of their possessions. If volcanic eruptions had an eye of the storm, this was it. A short-lived and deceptive period of calm before Mount Vesuvius launched its fourth pyroclastic surge.
It came around 7:30 am and crashed into Pompeii at over 200 mph with temperatures now exceeding 300°C. It was certain death in a fraction of a second for every living thing that resided in Pompeii at that time. Even those that had fled to the countryside were not guaranteed their safety, as the surges pushed deep into the surrounding landscape. A fifth surge buried Pompeii for good.
Pliny the Younger had been staying in Misenum, on the other side of the Bay of Naples, some 18 miles from the volcano. Even at this distance, the citizens of Misenum felt the effects of the eruption with ash falling heavily on the Roman port. Pliny and his mother, along with many others, initially decided to stay put and watch the events unfold across the bay. ‘On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger… soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea.'
Earlier in the day, Pliny's uncle known as Pliny the Elder had bravely set sail to help those trapped closer to the volcano. His body was found a couple of days later, his cause of death most likely from a heart attack.
Pliny the Younger described witnessing the waters around the bay receding, identifying what was most likely a mild tsunami caused by the eruptions. Eventually, the 17-year-old Pliny along with his mother set forth into the countryside with many others. He describes people placing pillows over their heads to protect themselves from falling objects.
‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men', Pliny recalled. ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore…I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.'
By the end of the second day, the sun managed to finally peek through the haze and reach the charred landscape below, lifting the souls of those still alive. Mount Vesuvius was finally at rest again.
Although exact numbers cannot be known, estimates place the death toll caused by the eruption in the region of 13,000-16,000, making it one of the most lethal volcanic events in history.
Herculaneum and Pompeii were never rebuilt again. They lay buried under ash, dust and rock, forever preserved in underground time capsules. In the immediate aftermath, Roman looters dug into Pompeii to steal whatever valuables they could. In the centuries that followed, the knowledge of where Herculaneum and Pompeii once lay became lost. They would remain forgotten until their accidental rediscoveries in the 18th century.
During 19th century excavations, Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realised that the voids he was discovering in the layers of ash at Pompeii were spaces left behind by decomposed human bodies. He invented the technique of injecting plaster into them to bring to life in vivid detail the people of Pompeii in their final desperate moments.
Over a thousand of these casts have been made, bodies frozen in gruesome suspended animation. Pompeii and Herculaneum are still one of the most fascinating archaeological places in the world and are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Every year millions of people visit the once buried Pompeii, making it one of Italy's most popular and famous tourist attractions, providing generation after generation a unique insight into Roman daily life.
It seems certain that Pompeii, Herculaneum, and nearby towns were first settled by Oscan-speaking descendants of the Neolithic inhabitants of Campania. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Oscan village of Pompeii, strategically located near the mouth of the Sarnus River, soon came under the influence of the cultured Greeks who had settled across the bay in the 8th century bce . Greek influence was challenged, however, when the Etruscans came into Campania in the 7th century. The Etruscans’ influence remained strong until their sea power was destroyed by King Hieron I of Syracuse in a naval battle off Cumae in 474 bce . A second period of Greek hegemony followed. Then, toward the end of the 5th century, the warlike Samnites, an Italic tribe, conquered Campania, and Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae became Samnite towns.
Pompeii is first mentioned in history in 310 bce , when, during the Second Samnite War, a Roman fleet landed at the Sarnus port of Pompeii and from there made an unsuccessful attack on the neighbouring city of Nuceria. At the end of the Samnite wars, Campania became a part of the Roman confederation, and the cities became “allies” of Rome. But they were not completely subjugated and Romanized until the time of the Social War. Pompeii joined the Italians in their revolt against Rome in this war and was besieged by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 89 bce . After the war, Pompeii, along with the rest of Italy south of the Po River, received Roman citizenship. However, as a punishment for Pompeii’s part in the war, a colony of Roman veterans was established there under Publius Sulla, the nephew of the Roman general. Latin replaced Oscan as the official language, and the city soon became Romanized in institutions, architecture, and culture.
A riot in the amphitheatre at Pompeii between the Pompeians and the Nucerians, in 59 ce , is reported by the Roman historian Tacitus. An earthquake in 62 ce did great damage in both Pompeii and Herculaneum. The cities had not yet recovered from this catastrophe when final destruction overcame them 17 years later.
Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 ce . A vivid eyewitness report is preserved in two letters written by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus, who had inquired about the death of Pliny the Elder, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum. Pliny the Elder had rushed from Misenum to help the stricken population and to get a close view of the volcanic phenomena, and he died at Stabiae. Site excavations and volcanological studies, notably in the late 20th century, have brought out further details. Just after midday on August 24, fragments of ash, pumice, and other volcanic debris began pouring down on Pompeii, quickly covering the city to a depth of more than 9 feet (3 metres) and causing the roofs of many houses to fall in. Surges of pyroclastic material and heated gas, known as nuées ardentes, reached the city walls on the morning of August 25 and soon asphyxiated those residents who had not been killed by falling debris. Additional pyroclastic flows and rains of ash followed, adding at least another 9 feet of debris and preserving in a pall of ash the bodies of the inhabitants who perished while taking shelter in their houses or trying to escape toward the coast or by the roads leading to Stabiae or Nuceria. Thus Pompeii remained buried under a layer of pumice stones and ash 19 to 23 feet (6 to 7 metres) deep. The city’s sudden burial served to protect it for the next 17 centuries from vandalism, looting, and the destructive effects of climate and weather.
About the Author
Jessica Ball is a graduate student in the Department of Geology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her concentration is in volcanology, and she is currently researching lava dome collapses and pyroclastic flows. Jessica earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the College of William and Mary, and worked for a year at the American Geological Institute in the Education/Outreach Program. She also writes the Magma Cum Laude blog, and in what spare time she has left, she enjoys rock climbing and playing various stringed instruments.
The People's Pompeii
Ellis's team is particularly interested in a corner of the city near the Porta Stabia gate that is a bit off the beaten archaeological path.
"It's kind of a lost neighborhood of the city. When they first cleared it of debris in the 1870s, they left this block for ruin (because it had no large villas) and it was covered over with a terrible jungle of vegetation," he says.
Much research has centered on public buildings and breathtaking villas that portray the artistic and opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the city's wealthy elite.
"We're trying to see how the other 98 percent of people lived in Pompeii," Ellis says. "It's a humble town block with houses, shops, and all the bits and pieces that make up the life of an ancient city."
But while his quest is knowledge of the living Pompeii, Stanford University's Gary Devore, the project's co-director, notes that the eruption still resonates because of the intimate connection it created between past and present.
"We're digging in an area where a lot of Pompeians died during the eruption," he says. "I remind myself all the time that I can investigate in such detail this ancient Roman culture as a direct result of a great human disaster.
"At the end of a day of intense mental processing and physical labor, when the tools are being packed up and put away for the night, I often take a moment to remind myself of that connection with the individuals whose homes and workshops we're digging up," he says.
For such at mighty and well-organised empire, ancient Rome actually had a remarkably bad system for identifying a given year. Multiple methods were used, but the most widely used format seems to have been to name each year after the more senior of that year's two consuls. Another common method was to calculate the number of years since the traditional founding of Rome in 753 BC, but, perhaps because Roman numerals become a bit nightmarish once you get into the hundreds, this method doesn't seem to have been used as frequently as you might imagine. In the late empire, it became increasingly common to use regnal numbers, e.g. in the fifth year of Diocletian.
Returning to the whole BC:AD thing, in Luke 2.2, the author states that Jesus was born in the year of the 'first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria'. The fact that the author of Luke's Gospel had to identify the year by referencing a provincial official testifies to the lack of a robust, uniform system of labelling years within the Roman Empire of the first century AD.
THE SKY IS FALLING
After the volcano first erupted shortly after noon, the thick ash turned everything black—people couldn’t even see the sun. Some residents escaped the city, while others took shelter in their homes. But the ash kept falling. Piles grew as deep as nine feet in some places, blocking doorways and caving in roofs.
Around midnight, the first of four searing-hot clouds of ash, rock, and toxic gas (also called surges) rushed down the volcano. Traveling toward Pompeii at about 180 miles an hour, the surge scorched everything in its path. Around 7 a.m., nearly 19 hours after the initial eruption, the city was completely covered in a deadly mix of ash and rock.
Mount Vesuvius Didn't Kill Everyone in Pompeii. Where Did the Survivors Go?
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, the volcano's molten rock, scorching debris and poisonous gases killed nearly 2,000 people in the nearby ancient Italian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
But not everyone died. So, where did the refugees, who couldn't return to their ash-filled homes, go?
Given that this was the ancient world, they didn't travel far. Most stayed along the southern Italian coast, resettling in the communities of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Puteoli, according to a new study that will be published this spring in the journal Analecta Romana. [Preserved Pompeii: A City in Ash]
Pinpointing the refugees' destinations was a huge undertaking, as historical records are spotty and scattered, said study researcher Steven Tuck, a professor and chair of classics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To determine where people went, he devised several criteria to look for while combing through the historical record, which included documents, inscriptions, artifacts and ancient infrastructure.
For example, Tuck made a database of family names that were distinct to Pompeii and Herculaneum and then checked whether these names showed up elsewhere after A.D. 79. He also looked for signs of unique Pompeii and Herculaneum culture, such as the religious worship of Vulcanus, the god of fire, or Venus Pompeiana, the patron deity of Pompeii, that surfaced in the nearby cities after the volcanic eruption.
Public infrastructure projects that sprung up about this time, likely to accommodate the sudden influx of refugees, also provided clues about resettlement, Tuck said. That's because between 15,000 and 20,000 people lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the majority of them survived Vesuvius' catastrophic eruption.
One of the survivors, a man named Cornelius Fuscus later died in what the Romans called Asia (what is now Romania) on a military campaign. "They put up an inscription to him there," Tuck told Live Science. "They said he was from the colony of Pompeii, then he lived in Naples and then he joined the army."
In another case, the Sulpicius family from Pompeii resettled in Cumae, according to historical documents that detail their flight and other records, Tuck said.
"Outside the walls of Pompeii, [archaeologists] discovered a strongbox (similar to a safe) full of their financial records," he said. "It was on the side of the road, covered by ash. So clearly, someone had taken this big strongbox when they fled, but then about a mile outside the city, dumped it."
The documents in this strongbox detailed several decades' worth of financial loans, debts and real estate holdings. It appears that the Sulpicius family members chose to resettle in Cumae because they had a business social network there, Tuck said.
During his research, Tuck also found resettlement evidence for quite a few women and freed slaves. Many refugees married each other, even after they relocated to new cities. One such woman, Vettia Sabina, was buried in a family tomb in Naples with the inscription "Have" adorning it. The word "have" is Oscan, a dialect that was spoken in Pompeii both before and after the Romans took over the city in 80 B.C. "It means 'welcome,' you see it on the floor in front of houses as a welcome mat [in Pompeii]," Tuck said. [Image Gallery: Pompeii's Toilets]
However, looking at unique family names can get you only so far. "My study actually drastically undercounts the number of Romans who got out," Tuck said, as many foreigners, migrants and slaves didn't have recorded family names, making them difficult to track.
Regarding public infrastructure, Tuck found that the Roman Emperor Titus gave money to cities that had become refugee hotspots. This money actually came from Pompeii and Herculaneum &mdash basically, the government helped itself to the money of anyone who died in the eruption who didn't have heirs. Then, this money was given to cities with refugees, although Titus took credit for any public infrastructure that was built, Tuck noted.
"The people whose money went into that fund don't ever get credit," he said.
Despite this, the new infrastructure likely helped the refugees settle into their new homes.
"The cities Pompeii and Herculaneum were gone," Tuck said. "But the government is obviously building new neighborhoods and aqueducts and public buildings in communities where people have settled."
2,000-year-old skeleton identified as senior Roman soldier on Vesuvius rescue mission
ROME — A 2,000-year-old skeleton belonged to a senior Roman soldier who was likely sent on a rescue mission to the doomed towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum as Mount Vesuvius erupted, scientists have discovered.
Initially thought to be that of a regular solider, the skeleton was among 300 found at Herculaneum in the 1980s. But now researchers have concluded that it belonged to a high-ranking officer with a Roman fleet sent on a rescue mission to evacuate panic-stricken inhabitants running for their lives.
Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, popular Roman seaside resorts south of modern-day Naples, were obliterated by the violent eruption in A.D. 79, covering people and houses in lava, mud and ash, preserving them for future archaeologists to discover.
“When I arrived at Herculaneum in 2017 I realized that a lot of research went into the skeletons, but nobody thought of analyzing the tools found next to it,” Francesco Sirano, director of the archaeological site at Herculaneum, told NBC News. “So my team and I took a closer look, and what we found was astonishing.”
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When the skeleton was discovered 30 years ago, several clues set it apart from the hundreds of others unearthed by archaeologists. It still had a leather belt around its waist, and by its side there were a sword with an ivory hilt, a decorated dagger and a bagful of coins. Still, the skeleton was put on permanent exhibition and identified as a generic soldier.