There is an old saying: “Live every day like it’s your last.” We live in an unpredictable world and are threatened by everything from nuclear fallout to heart disease. But how many of us really live each day as if we’ll never get another?
Late in the year 79 CE, the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum would have found this question extremely pressing. When the nearby stratovolcano Mount Vesuvius erupted, it set off a cycle of chaos that wiped out both towns and their citizens.
There have been many devastating volcanic eruptions throughout history, but the catastrophe at Pompeii holds a singular grip on the public imagination. This is due, in part, to the writings of a survivor: A man we know as Pliny the Younger witnessed the entire events and wrote about it in his later years.
Thanks to Pliny’s writings and the tireless work of archaeologists and conservationists, we now have a detailed understanding of the events that left the preserved bodies of Pompeii.
In a geological time frame, Mount Vesuvius erupts regularly. According to sediment analysis, it has happened more than 50 times since its formation. But despite this clear danger, settlements were built around the mountain. Greeks built the city in the 8th century BCE, but when it came under Roman control, it became a large and commercially successful resort town.
It was frequented by wealthy tourists and the artisans who catered to them. It had a bustling economy and was home to around 20,000 people.
In 79 CE, most of the longterm residents of Pompeii could still remember the quake of 62 CE. Caused by the same seismic activity that led to the eruption, a series of shallow earthquakes rocked the area over the course of several days. They disrupted the city's water supply by displacing the fragile pipes running from a nearby spring.
Since it was only 17 years between this event and Vesuvius’s burst, excavators have found repairs from the earthquake in the ruins left by Vesuvius’s flow.
The morning of the event, Pliny the Younger was studying in his uncle’s estate when his mother pointed out what looked like a strange and enormous cloud. Pliny wrote, "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... In places, it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it."
Pliny was looking at the initial eruption when the only sign so far was a strange cloud hanging in the sky.
At this early stage, Pompeiians still had time to flee, and some people did. However, many remained in their homes, unsure of what was happening. Those who stayed experienced a surreal sight: ash falling on the streets like snow. It blanketed buildings in thick waves and was accompanied by steadily climbing temperatures, reaching around 300 degrees C (572 degrees F).
Historians and scientists are divided on how most Pompeiians perished. Some believe they were smothered over time by volcanic ash, while newer theories claim they passed instantly in the enormous heat wave.