Mount Vesuvius is a volcanic mountain that lies in the Gulf of Naples and is part of the Campanian Volcanic arc. It is, however, the only one of these volcanoes to have erupted within recent history. Though often destructive, the most famous eruption is undoubtedly that of 79AD. This caused the now legendary destruction of Pompeii, Herculaneum and many other settlements in the area.
This may be the most mythicised of the eruptions. In fact, few know preceding this the volcano gave off much larger and more destructive eruptions. Just one of these was the 1800BC eruption that swallowed several Bronze Age settlements whole. It was also the sight of one of the first battles of the Servile Wars, in which Spartacus’ slave force rebelled against the Roman masters. To everyone’s surprise, using unusual and resourceful technqiues, the slaves outflanked and defeated the Roman troops.
The Volcano itself started forming around 25,000 years ago, with the African plate sliding under the Eurasian plate.That said, the volcano we see now is very different to what originally formed, with each eruption changing its shape and structure. The legend surrounding the volcano, on the other hand, has a much more interesting tale of Vesuvius’ origins. The tale goes that Hercules arrived here on his travels, finding criminal giants. He proceeded to battle and defeat these giants with the help of the Gods. As punishment, the giants were buried under this mountain, and seismic or volcanic action was caused by their stirring.
The eruption of 79 AD was a catastrophic loss of human life even to the Romans, who regularly would lose tens of thousands of men in their battles. All in all we are not sure exactly how many people died, but just from the small area that archeologists have already excavated, the ash deposits have furnished 1000 casts, and revealed the bones of a further 100 different people. In Herculaneum archeologists discovered over 330 body remains. Much more land is still awaiting excavation, so you can imagine how high the death toll would have rung.
The majority of information we have about this disaster comes from the only two surviving eye-witness accounts. One is by Pliny the younger and the other by Tacitus, a historian. We also know that preceding the eruption there were many signs. Given the time, however, people didn’t take the earth tremors as forewarnings of such a violent eruption. Interestingly, Romans had a great interest in omens and portents, and yet they dismissed what we now know to be clear signs of impending volcanic activity.
In fact, at the time of the eruptions, many people were in the midst of recovering from such tremors and rebuilding their towns. The eruption started with a precipitation of pumice and ash. Unfortunately, only people who fled at this point were likely to survive. Many of the inhabitants just expected a storm to be brewing. As a result they thought it best to stay under the shelter of their houses. Tragically, this sealed the fate of many.
The pumice showers started in the morning, and by the time the first eruptions started, 10ft of the ash had already fallen. This meant that people unintentionally trapped themselves on their upper floors under the roof. Upon exploding, Vesuvius shot its matter 33km into the air. It released 1000 times as much thermal energy as the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pyroclastic flows that then ran down the hill could reach speeds of 100km/hr and more, making them impossible to escape. The whole eruption also heated the air to fatal temperatures. According to Paul from SweepSmart, the coldest accessible temperatures were unlikely to be lower than 100°c.
Such was the devastation that neither Herculaneum nor Pompeii were rebuilt after this eruption. And that is despite the area being an extremely important port in the Mediterranean trade system, as well as home to many luxurious villas owned by rich noble families and merchants. What did happen, however, was that ‘explorers’ would dig tunnels into the newly settled lava rock. They often continued to loot any treasures they found. A testament to how wealthy Pompeii was before this eruption is the fact that despite extensive looting, it is still one of the world’s richest excavations!
Since this eruption, there have been more throughout the centuries, though none have since been as destructive. In 1906, for example, the eruption caused 100 deaths. Nevertheless, as the century progressed, so did the technology with which scientists now monitor the volcano. With such security measures in place, the area opened as a national park accessible to the public in the 90s. Today you can even visit the summit with a guide.
This is definitely worth a visit should you find yourself in the area. Make sure to plan ahead, however, as it requires booking in advance and preparation! Also be aware that the weather heavily affects accessibility to the summit of Vesuvius. If there is too much fog or rain excursions should not take place. The same, of course, goes for any signs of imminent activity. Nevertheless, once cleared, it is safe to reach the top with a guide. It is one of the most exciting and interesting insights into both human and natural history.