A Normal Morning, in Vesuvius’ Shadow: Pompeii’s Eruption

The Roman Forum at Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

The residents of Pompeii had no idea what would happen on that fateful Fall day in 79 AD. The sun rose on a bright and unremarkable October morning, on a busy merchant town below Mount Vesuvius. Those who lived in Pompeii had no idea the mountain was a volcano; they though the lofty heights of Vesuvius housed the God of wine, Bacchus, because of the abundance of vineyards curling around it.  

Until 1 o’clock in the afternoon, life in Pompeii carried on as normal. Slaves were collecting bread from the bakeries for their masters, legal cases were discussed in the law courts, and Gods were worshipped in the temples. After that first eruption on that early Autumn afternoon, the region would never be the same… 

The Eruption That Changed Everything  

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1944

When Vesuvius erupted at 1pm, it looked like a pine tree made of fire was bursting from the mountain top. Lava, pumice and molten ash shot into the atmosphere and lingered, waiting for its later fall upon the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum – destroying them completely.  

The sky went completely black. People tried to flee the town, but when they reached the beach, boats could not depart because of thick pumice stones floating near the shore. A tsunami followed, making escape by sea impossible.  

Morning turned to afternoon, and no real horror had yet met the town. Those who had initially fled returned, as the quiet mountain tricked them into feeling safe. As afternoon turned to evening, that all changed. First, pumice stones the size of golf balls rained down upon the town. Wooden ceilings collapsed, leaving people trapped inside – but the worse was not over yet. 

The Dead of Pompeii

Plaster cast of one who died in Pompeii
A plaster cast of one of Pompeii’s citizens who died in the eruption

The first pyroclastic surge touched Pompeii at 6 am the following morning. Originally, scientists believed that ash filled the lungs of Pompeii’s citizens, and they suffocated. However, the tranquil repose of the plaster death casts always disrupted this theory. We now know that a pyroclastic surge kills people with a sheer wave of heat. The surge is over in a millisecond – and in that millisecond, everyone who had remained in the town, and survived the earlier trials, was dead; cooked alive at 325°C.  

Over 1,000 bodies were found in the town, and by pouring plaster into the shapes they left behind, life as it faces the moment of death has been preserved in the most evocative casts, on display in the town.  You can see these evocative plaster casts on a private tour of Pompeii – where you’ll learn even more about Ancient Roman life, and the horrific eruption of Vesuvius.

by Annie Beverley

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