On August 24th in the year 79 (before there was any such thing as a month of August), Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy erupted. The wealthy cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed, and many thousand people were immediately killed, when they were buried in volcanic ash.
In the 18th century, the cities were rediscovered and excavated, giving the world a startling view of everyday life in ancient Rome.
During the early Roman Empire, about 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, where merchants, manufacturers and farmers partook of the rich, fertile soil there. Unfortunately, these ancient people did not suspect the reason why the soil was so black and fertile. This was caused by earlier eruptions. Herculaneum was a city of 5,000. With its opulent villas and Roman baths, it was a favorite place for rich Romans to go on vacation.
Archeologists believe that gambling artifacts found in Herculaneum, and a brothel unearthed in Pompeii attest to the decadence of these cities, seemingly missing the fact that all cities have gambling and brothels. It's not about cities, but a fact of human nature.
When Vesuvius exploded, it sent a mushroom cloud ten miles wide, high up into the atmosphere. Then for half a day, it rained down ash and pumice rocks onto these cities. Many citizens fled and managed to escape, but about 2,000 people stayed in Pompeii, hiding in basements and hoping to wait out the eruption. Lethal clouds of burning lava were followed by many tons of volcanic mud and rock, entombing the whole city in just one day. The people who remained in Pompeii were killed the following day when a cloud of toxic gas rolled into the city, suffocating all who remained. Then followed a rush of rock and ash, collapsing roofs and walls, burying the dead.
Much of what we know of the eruption comes from the account of Pliny the Younger, who was staying nearby when this all happened. In two letters to Tacitus (a Roman historian), Pliny described how people were covering their heads with pillows to ward off flying rocks. He also noted how “a dark and horrible cloud of combustible matter suddenly broke and set forth. Some bewailed their own fate. Others prayed to die.” Pliny, who was only 17 at the time, escaped the disaster and later became a noted Roman writer.
In 1748, a farmer found traces of Pompeii beneath his vineyard. Since then, excavations have been going on nonstop. In 1927, the Italian government excavated Herculaneum, and found numerous art treasures. Meanwhile, the remains of 2,000 men, women and children were found at Pompeii. After being buried in ash, the ash hardened, then the bodies decomposed, leaving a macabre outline of their human forms in the moment of death. The first human remains in Herculaneum were discovered in 1982.
Today, Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano in Europe. Its last major eruption was in 1631. Another eruption is soon expected, which could spell trouble for the 700,000 people who live near Mount Vesuvius.