The ancient Romans were a superstitious people, forever looking for portents in natural events. They failed utterly, however, to predict the cataclysm which engulfed the fertile and heavily populated Campanian countryside south of Naples in AD 79. Had they possessed a modern scientist’s understanding of the earth’s behaviour they might have seen the link with the earthquake which had damaged many buildings in the region 17 years earlier. As it was, a comprehensive rebuilding programme was still underway in tiie busy provincial town of Pompeii when on a late summer’s day its brooding neighbour Mount Vesuvius erupted without warning, casting day into night in a trice. At 1,280 m (4,200 ft) and only 17,000 years old, Vesuvius was a small and young volcano but the explosion nevertheless propelled a column of ash and gases some 25 km (15 mi) into the stratosphere.
Overwhelming though the initial eruption was, it was the subsequent pyroclastic flows which did the real damage. A pyroclastic flow is a relatively rare phenomenon in volcanic eruptions, caused by a temporary collapse of pressure in the eruptive column which produces a dense cloud of incandescent ash, mud and volcanic debris. Nothing stands a chance in the face of this deadly cocktail as it roars over the ground at speeds up to 500 kph (310 mph) and temperatures as high as 500°C, In AD 79 there were no fewer than six such flows, at the end of which the entire communities of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum lay buried beneath meters of volcanic ash and lava. In one of history’s great ironies, this catastrophe became posterity’s great gain, for the burial ensured the near-perfect preservation of complete townscapes which have yielded unparalleled insights into an ancient and vanished way of life.
When did Vesuvius erupt: August 24-26 AD 79
Where is Vesuvius: Campania, southern Italy
What was Vesuvius’s eruption death toll: Unknown, but estimates range from 10,000 to 25,000, based on the known populations of the affected communities. Evidence of over 1,500 bodies has been unearthed – including cavities created by corpses which had decayed in their casings of ash and pumice. The plaster casts made by archaeologists of bodies at the moment of death provide an extraordinarily potent and moving witness to the disaster.
You should know: Vesuvius has erupted more than 50 times since AD 79. The last occasion was in 1944, which means that another eruption is overdue.