Pompeii or should I say, the ruins of Pompeii, are located near the city of Naples in the Campania Region of Italy. The City was once a thriving community until one fateful day in AD79 when the nearby volcano, Mt Vesuvius erupted and showered the town with hot ash and pumice (large chunks of lava).
Founded in 6th Century BC by the Oscans (people from central Italy), Pompeii became known as a safe port town for sailors and merchants. Later the area would be dominated by the Greeks following attacks by Etruscans.
In the following century the area was totally controlled by the Samnites, a tribe from the southern Apennines. In 80 BC the town became part of the Roman colony and became known as Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. Everything was going along fine until AD 62, when a violent earthquake rocked the area and caused severe damage to Pompeii and the surrounding towns.
Pompeii was rebuilt, though not to its former glory. Despite the setback, Pompeii was still a prosperous port town and a popular vacation place for rich Romans. For seventeen years the locals lived in relative peace from earthquakes, only experiencing small tremors that had become part of daily life in the area. But unbeknown to everyone, the pressure was building up in the mountain which shadowed the town, and a terrible fate was about to befall them all. Interesting enough no one knew Vesuvius was actually a volcano, it hadn’t erupted in centuries.
In August AD 79 all the springs and wells dried up for no apparent reason and a series of small tremors started rocking the area. Still, life went on as normal, all warning signs going unnoticed. Then in a blink of an eye, everything changed. On the afternoon of August 24, in a spectacular display, Mt Vesuvius exploded, creating a cloud of ash and lava. The city of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several other surrounding towns were buried under ash and pumice. They would stay frozen in time for the next 1500 years.
Things You May Not Know About Pompeii
Ash from the eruption reached as far away as Africa. It was also reported that most of central Italy was powdered in dust.
During its deadliest stage of the eruption the volcano was coughing up over 100,000 tons of magma, ash and gas every second. No wonder it took 1500 years to dig the town out!
The column of ash and gases shot up as high as 20 miles into the sky.
The peak of Mt Vesuvius was completely blown off and split into two smaller peaks.
Not only was Pompeii buried in up to 12m (40 feet) of boiling mud and lava but the city of Herculaneum also disappeared under an amazing 21m (70 feet).
As if it wasn’t terrifying enough that the locals had to contend with hot ash raining down on them , they also had to dodge the deadly rock missiles shooting from the volcano. Some of these nasty projectiles reached speeds of up to 180kms an hour.
Many people perished from the eruption because of pyroclastic flows and carbon dioxide. Pyroclastic flow is a high-speed avalanche of hot ash, rock, and gas. These flows can reach temperatures of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and can move at speeds of up to 150 miles an hour. Carbon dioxide is also a killer, it can accumulate in lethal concentrations and cause animals and humans to simply suffocate. Did I happen to mention those deadly rock missiles too!
Ironically on August 23rd each year, the Romans celebrated the Vulcanalia, a festival in honor of the Roman god of fire.
Some of the victims of Pompeii were actually looters grabbing valuables as the locals fled.
The first eye witness account of Mt Vesuvius erupting was by a writer, Pliny the Younger. He observed the destruction from Cape Misenum, some 30km away and recorded the event. Ironically his uncle, Pliny the Elder, curious about the event went to get a closer look and died from the deadly gases.
The term “plinian” was named in honour of Pliny the Younger (obviously not Pliny the Elder!)
Officially the city of Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738, and Pompeii in 1748 but they were actually found in 1599 by an architect named Fontana, who was digging a new course for the river Sarno. It would take another 150 years before they would be unearthed.
Pompeii has some of the oldest examples of preserved graffiti in the world, dating back to A.D. 79.
Archeologists were a little shocked and embarrassed when they started to unearth the city. Many of the walls were adorned with erotic paintings. In fact even the statues, fountains and reliefs were explicit. Not to worry, they have all been gathered up and are now stored safely away at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Safe from prying eyes!
Guiseppe Fiorelli, who was in charge of the 1860 excavations, noticed voids in the ash layers. He came up with the idea of injecting plaster into these voids. When the plaster was dry and the area was dug up he had perfectly recreated forms of Vesuvius’s victims.