The Death of the Cities
|A moonless night falls on the Forum of Pompeii, now empty after most visitors have left. [Photo by Author]
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD certainly had a quite extraordinary eyewitness. Pliny the Younger, then only 18 years old, described the tragedy unfolding from his villa in Misenum, on the opposite side of the bay of Naples, in two letters that he wrote to his friend and famous historian Cornelius Tacitus.
At that time, Pliny's uncle (also called Pliny the Elder) was stationed in Misenum as the admiral of the Roman fleet, and could witness from that vantage point all the stages of the eruption.
We will borrow from his narrative to recall the final hours of Pompeii.
August 24th, 79 AD – 1:00 pm
“On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance […]It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it” 
Around 1 pm, the pressure that had for centuries accumulated inside the Caldera of Mount Vesuvius finally burst out, causing the rock cap that for centuries had kept it contained inside the mountain to explode. The initial explosion produced a column of ash and pumice rising as high as 25 Km into the atmosphere, which started pouring on Pompeii to the Southeast in the form of a heavy ashfall. In this stage, the sky remained clear on Herculaneum, that was spared the ash and pumice rain as long as it remained upwind.
The pumice started very soon to accumulate in Pompeii, reaching in a span of hours a considerable thickness that started to threaten buildings and constructions under its weight. In this stage many people might have decided to leave the city, perhaps trying to reach the hills or the sea. Mixed with the light pumice were however larger fragments of lava and molten rock that the explosion had ejected miles aways from the main crater. These fragments started falling with the strength of projectiles, piercing through the roofs of buildings and causing large fires to break out.
August 24th, 79 AD – 4:00 pm
As Pliny started receiving terrified reports of citizens trapped in their villas at the foot of the mountain, with no way of escape except by sea, his responsibilities as admiral of the Roman fleet took over his scientific curiosity:
“He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.
He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them. Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.” 
Pliny made route to Stabiae, a wealthy resort to the South of Pompeii, where his friend Pomponianus had his villa. Pliny the Younger recounts that his uncle greeted Pomponianus, cheering and encouraging him; he then had a bath and dined, thinking that by his own conduct he could calm his friend’s fears.
|After the Eruption, Mount Vesuvius lost over half of its original elevation. Before the eruption, the slopes of Mount Vesuvius were entirely covered with vineyards. [Photo by Author]
August 24th, 79 AD – 10:00 pm
As the night fell, “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points” on Mount Vesuvius. In the meanwhile, the falling ash and pumice had piled up already to a considerable height, almost filling the courtyard of the house where Pliny was sleeping.
“By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out. He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.
They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter. In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears. As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.” 
August 24th, 79 AD – Midnight
While Pliny was sleeping unaware of the terrible fate that doomed on the city, the great cloud of ash and pumice that had risen as high as 30 Km into the atmosphere, collapsed spectacularly causing massive pyroclastic surges that headed straight to Herculaneum. The surges instantly killed everyone on their path, including those who had taken shelter in the boathouses and on the beach and burying Herculaneum under 23 meters of volcanic material. Miraculously, a second surge headed to Pompeii stopped a few meters outside of the Herculaneum gate, thus sparing the city and those who had found refuge within its walls.
August 25th, 79 AD – 6:00 am
That day, the Sun would not rise on Pompeii and the other cities on the Southern Coast of the Bay of Naples. As Pliny recounts “Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp”. As the elder scientist went on to investigate the possibility of an escape by sea, poisonous gases released by the eruption caused him to fall to the ground, where his body was later found untouched by the rescuers.
“Then the flames and smell of sulfur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.” 
At that point, many of the buildings in Pompeii that had not collapsed under the weight of the thick ash and pumice were on fire or shaking because of the continuous tremors.
August 25th, 79 AD – 8:00 am
A short couple of hours after dawn, the Mountain exploded with terrifying power, causing massive surges to cover the cities of Pompeii, Stabiae and Oplontis that had until then been spared by the pyroclastic flows. Travelling at over 100 miles per hour, this last pyroclastic surge left no escape to those who had fled to the hills or had decided to stay inside their houses in Pompeii. The conflagration also caused a small tsunami to hit the Bay of Naples, as testified by the retreat of the sea that Pliny himself witnessed at Misenum.
The surge then crossed the Bay of Naples as a fiery cloud, reaching to Misenum where Pliny the Younger was witnessing in horror the final stages of the eruption. This last passage of Pliny is worth quoting in its entirety:
“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.
There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them. A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight. However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers. We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight. I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, but 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.” 
After the eruption subsided, what was left was a devastated and almost lunar landscape. The cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis, together with countless villages on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, had been completely destroyed and buried under as much as 23 meters of volcanic ash. In Pompeii, ash and pumice had piled up as high as 5 meters, covering almost every building but the largest public structures. Where Mount Vesuvius once stood, was now a huge crater created by the collapse of the magma chamber. Thousands had been killed in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and many more had been left without a house or shelter.
|This man was found crouching in a corner near the fullery of Stephanus, he might have been desperately trying to cover his mouth as the asphyxiating gases released by the eruption had already filled the streets. [Photo by Author]
|A dog, still wearing a collar and tied to its chain, was also among the victims of the final surge that invested Pompeii. [Photo by Author]
|A number of people had taken shelter in a garden near one of the gates in the walls of Pompeii, perhaps waiting for someone to come to their rescue. They were probably sleeping when the surge caught them unaware. [Photo by Author]
|Among the bodies found in the Garden of the Fugitives, as it came to be known after it was discovered in the '60s, was that of a well built man holding the hand of a woman in one last, eternal embrace. [Photo by Author]
A rescue was organized, and the Emperor himself appointed two ex-consuls to coordinate the relief effort. But the destruction was just too great. Life resumed along the coast of the Bay of Naples, as many towns were reconstructed and the extensive damage caused by the eruption in Naples and other cities as far as 50 miles from Mount Vesuvius was restored.
Pompeii and Herculaneum, however, would lay forgotten for almost 1,500 years, until workers digging for an aqueduct in Pompeii unearthed some walls and frescoes. It was not until the Borbonic excavations of the 18th and 19th Century that a relevant portion of Pompeii could see the light again, and even then it took many years before excavators could positively confirm that the ruins they had been painstakingly uncovering were indeed those of Pompeii.
Here is a very beautiful animation from the Melbourne Museum of the last hours of Pompeii:
 "The Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1999).