The Day Mount Vesuvius Destroyed Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius blew on August 24, 79 CE, it leveled three Roman cities, destroyed acres of forest, and killed tens of thousands of people.

For 1,500 years, many of the ruins remained buried, preserved for future historians to uncover mysteries about life in Rome. Without those archeological finds, historians would have but two written accounts from survivors, a poor record for such a disaster.

Despite taking place almost two millennia ago, the 79 Mount Vesuvius eruption remains one of the most disastrous and famous in history. It will happen again.

Formation of the Beast

If Italy is a boot kicking a soccer ball towards the left, then Vesuvius is a low shin splint on the western coast.

The cone formed about 17,000 years ago, a result of the African tectonic plate sliding under the Eurasian plate, the same one that created Italy.

As the African plate drives deeper into the Earth, a slab window or opening in the plate, allows magma and pressure to rise to the surface, creating Vesuvius.

It is this flow from deep in the Earth which eventually created and the explosions in 79.

A Volcano Rumbles

Simulation of Pompeii before the explosion | youtube

When the 79 explosions rocked the surrounding area, it wasn’t the first time. There’d been a quake a decade before, in 62 CE.

The Romans of that day didn’t connect the two. They were too busy making repairs to the damaged wells and buildings from the 62 quake and dealing with the subsequent tremors.

Pompeii, the largest of the cities near Vesuvius, was a destination city for traveling Romans. With the views of the volcano and the wonderful climate, and culture of the town, it made a perfect getaway.

Then, the morning of the 24th, a cloud of smoke puffed high above the summit of the volcano, looking like a pine tree to heaven. A young man by the name of Pliny later wrote about the cloud.

“It resembled a pine more than any other tree,” said Pliny, who watched from across the bay. “Like a very high tree, the cloud went high and expanded in different branches…. sometimes white, sometimes dark and stained by the sustained sand and ashes.”

Still, few concerned themselves at that point. Most in Pompeii went about their lives.

A Volcano Erupts

The people of Pompeii today |

The cloud of ash grew until it blocked the sun, but still, there was no danger as far as the people cared. Ash fell on the city, which the people swept away like a nuisance.

Then, around midnight a wave of mud sliding down the hill slammed into the city of Herculaneum, forcing its citizens to run for cover in Pompeii. They were not safe there either.

By 6:30 in the morning, a cloud of superheated gas rolled down the slopes of Vesuvius. The noxious fumes and heat killed most everyone instantly, their lungs on fire from the heat, dropping them where they stood.

What followed was a rainfall of ash and mud, covering the bodies like plaster casts. Estimates of the death toll exceeded 10,000 but could have been as many as 16,000.

The city of Pompeii lay buried until 1595 when the construction of an aqueduct revealed a buried city. What archeologists found, and looters too, was the well-persevered remains of a day in the life of Pompeii. For residents of nearby Napoli, the answer to the question of whether Vesuvius could blow again is a matter when not if.

What archeologists found there, and looters too, was the well-preserved remains of a day in the life of Pompeii. Bodies lie as they were in 79, frozen in their last terrifying moments as if one could unmuzzle their fears by moving them too much.

This will happen again, hopefully with less disastrous results. The nearest city to the volcano today is Naples, Italy. For residents there, the answer to the question of whether Vesuvius could blow again is a matter when not if

Vesuvius today with Naples in the foreground |