Posts tagged "Vesuvius"

Vesuvius- What Really Happened

Every Wednesday we feature an interactive chat or contest on the Discovery Times Square Facebook fan page. This week there was a fun discussion about the remarkable eyewitness account we have of the fateful day when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Pliny the Younger was a teenager at the time, and he describes how his uncle Pliny the Elder, a renowned naturalist and author, headed out to save some friends during the eruption:


"My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon. 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…

As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. 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…

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned…

The eruption of Vesuvius took about 24 hours, and in the morning of the second day of the eruption Pliny the Younger describes how he and his mother fled for safety:

Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: 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.”

Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius is a fascinating read- check out the complete version here.

And check out our Facebook fan page next Wednesday and win two free tickets to the show!

If You Thought AD 79 Was Bad…


Footprints preserved in ash from the Avellino eruption

The eruption of Vesuvius in August AD 79, some 1932 years ago, was an amazingly destructive event that buried the city of Pompeii under meters of ash. But did you know that there was an even more violent eruption of Vesuvius roughly 1500 years earlier?

The Avellino eruption buried the Bronze Age settlements of Nola, which was discovered by archaeologists in 2001, and Afragola, which was discovered in 2005. 

In Nola, archaeologists have excavated three huts surrounded by fences, along with a large collection of human and animal footprints. At both sites, the footprints preserved in the ash, as well as a dearth of human remains or valuable bronze objects, leads scholars to believe that most people and their livestock had a chance to escape the eruption (caged animals, like the remains of goats found at Nola, weren’t as lucky). The impressions of other items, such as furniture, containers and fabric, give us a rare opportunity to understand what everyday life was like back then. 

Since the settlements at Nola and Afragola were significantly smaller than the city of Pompeii, the level of human destruction appears to be much smaller. But the eruption itself was much bigger, and, unlike the AD 79 eruption, reached Naples itself. So when scientists think about the worst-case scenario for the next eruption of Vesuvius, they look at the Avellino eruption…and cross their fingers. 

Click on the links for more information on Nola and Afragola