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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pompeii: Swallowed by the Gaping Mouth of Hell


The Temple of Jupiter, with Mt Vesuvius in the background

Around mid-day, sometime between 24 August and 24 November 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius awakened like an enraged god, shooting flames and ash miles into the air.  Scientists estimate the rate of rock and pumice at about 1.5 million tons per second, showering the countryside with six inches of ash every hour.

This wasn’t the first time Pompeii’s number had come up.  People in the area were used to tremors and even terrible earthquakes, one of which destroyed the city in 62 A.D.  By the time Mt Vesuvius erupted, the city was mostly rebuilt and apparently things were back to normal, the occasional tremor included.  Normality brings with it apathy, or at least a quietude that erases the specter of alarm.

Brings to mind people building houses on California hillsides, then being astonished at the next mudslide.  Or, maybe Florida coastal residents saying, “Hurricanes?  That’s soooooo last year.”

It’s not that Pompeii had no warning.  But, when you build a city next to a volcano, rumblings are as ordinary as your wife’s latest headache.

What warnings?  Earth tremors came first, then pillars of billowing steam, heated to over 2000ºF, coating the sky, only to condense, and turn to heavy rain, creating super-heated mud.  Then came the eruptions.

But, unlike some readers may suspect, lava did not flow into Pompeii, nor did the citizens immediately race to safety.  The sister city of Hurculaneum, on the other side of the volcano, was swallowed in an avalanche of hot mud, but accounts suggest Pompeii got pelted by ash, sending residents into their homes to wait out the worst.  Bad move. Soon the ash rained down in bigger chunks, along with rocks.  Roofs began to collapse.  Rain brought a thicker coating of ash.

People broke for the river Sarno, along roads leading anywhere away from the volcano.  Wasn’t the time to pack two bags and ring for the porter, but there are accounts of slaves bearing their masters out on sedan chairs.  Some travelers were caught on the roads when the gaseous winds swept through, poisoning everything that breathed.

Here’s a brief account by Pliny the Younger, describing the race to safety with his mother:

“Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. 'Let us leave the road while we can still see,' I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind. 'We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. 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.”

After two full days of devastation, it’s a wonder that out of a population of some 20,000 people, estimates are that 90% escaped. 

And what of those left behind?  They and their city rested for some 2000 years.  Real excavations began in 1860 by Giuseppe Fiorelli.  He was the first to discover gaps left by organic matter and to pour plaster of Paris into the gaps, thus preserving the images of people and animals who died so long ago.  Obviously, excavations continue, but out of the entire city of some 150 acres, only about 2/3 have been uncovered.  There are plans afoot to leave most of the rest, to preserve the area for future generations to uncover.



Here are some things to think about.  Mt Vesuvius is one of Europe’s active volcanoes and last erupted in 1944.  An American Air Base was nearby and quickly evacuated, except for 18 aircraft, which were destroyed.  There’s more coming, folks, but nobody knows when.

Pompeii is about 5 miles from Mt. Vesuvius.  Naples is about 15 miles away, but that’s the heart of Naples.  Parts of the city are much closer.
Why is Pompeii such a big deal?  Lots of ruins spread around Europe.  Yes, but this was an entire city trapped in time.  Conjecture turns to certainty when you uncover a virtually untouched city.  Everything from homes to businesses, to customs, courtesies, dress, even diet comes to light.  How did they worship?  How did they live?  What amusements entertained them?  Pompeii answers these questions and more.

The remains of a 'fast food' stand, Roman style.

The collection of daily articles would fill several warehouses.

One more question:  Why did people build a city so close to an active volcano?  Lots of answers.  The closeness of the River Sarno made an ideal location for trade.  In addition, volcanic soil is apparently agricultural heaven.  As any realtor will tell you…location…well you know the rest of the jingle.

Lemons from near Pompeii 
I had an odd experience, walking the stone streets of Pompeii.  My visions seemed almost real.  People passing in the streets on their way to here and there.  Commerce and the life of the city passed before me.  Look, I know the half bottle of Grappa at lunch helped, but still…

Enjoy the photos, realizing one trip is simply not enough to photograph everything.  Miles of streets went undiscovered on my first visit.  It won’t be my last.

The Basilica, which was not a church, but a place for banking and legal matters.

Part of the ceiling in the public bath.

Entry to the public bath.

The soldiers and gladiators quarters. 
Some of the many homes uncovered.

A main street, flanked by shops.

More homes.


The small amphitheater, used not only for entertainment, but also public meetings.

A figure on the wall of the small amphitheater.