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 his letters, Pliny the Younger describes his uncle’s attempt to save others from Vesuvius. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was in command of a fleet of ships in the Mediterranean, and he ordered them to assist in missions to towns all along the coast. Fearlessly (or recklessly) Pliny the Elder got closer and closer to the mountain, itself, only to find that stones were raining down on the ships and pumice stones were filling the water around them.
The Younger wrote, "They were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore.”
Current estimates say the detritus fell at a rate of six inches per hour. That may not seem like much, but how long before the ash and stone made it impossible to escape? Two hours? Four? How long would it take to get out of the radius on foot?
After the gentle fall of ash, chunks of white pumice started falling down on Pompeii. As the volcano started throwing out deeper layers of earth, the pumice turned gray and was accompanied by limestone and lava.
The threat of large falling stones was enough to keep many indoors. The larger chunks of pumice, limestone, and lava rock landed on others as they tried to escape.
Scientists have reconstructed the final moments of one family’s harrowing attempt to survive. Between 1 pm and 7 pm, the front of this family’s house fell and forced them to retreat into the rear rooms. Pumice and larger objects were falling along with ash.
Being struck by the falling detritus was the least of their worries. The sheer weight of it all caused houses to fall on many Pompeiians, as evidenced by the fractures in the skulls found among the remains.
Ash covered every surface, cinders fell from the sky, and large chunks of rock dropped into buildings, trapping people in their homes. Imagine hearing the screams of your neighbors as they suffered in their homes. If you didn’t know any better, wouldn’t you think it was the end of the world?
Pliny the Younger certainly did. He wrote, “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 [perishing] with me and I with it."
Pompeiians were left to defend themselves in a devastated landscape and were forced to decide whether it would be safer in the houses with their caving-in roofs, or out in the fields with the falling detritus. One group determined to go out into the fields, protecting themselves as best they could. "They went out then," Pliny wrote, "having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole [defense] against the storm of stones that fell [around] them.”