Pompeii

Disaster & the Gods

At noon on August 24th, 79 A.D. the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded, propelling a 10-mile mushroom cloud of ash and pumice into the stratosphere. For the next 12 hours, volcanic ash and a hail of pumice stones up to 3 inches in diameter showered Pompeii, forcing the city’s occupants to flee in terror. Some 20,000 people stayed in Pompeii, holed up in cellars or stone structures, hoping to wait out the eruption. A westerly wind protected Herculaneum from the initial stage of the eruption, but then a giant cloud of hot ash and gas surged down the western flank of Vesuvius, engulfing the city and burning or asphyxiating all who remained. This lethal cloud was followed by a flood of volcanic mud and rock, burying the city.

The people who remained in Pompeii were killed on the morning of August 25th when a cloud of toxic gas poured into the city, suffocating all that remained. A flow of rock and ash followed, collapsing roofs and walls and burying the dead.After several small explosions, Vesuvius erupts, sending a tall mushroom cloud of superheated rock and gas over twenty kilometres into the sky. The cloud blows southwards, plunging everything into total darkness. The mountain emits noxious gases and unearthly noises. Violent tremors cause buildings to collapse. People flee to the beach, hoping for rescue from the sea but floating banks of pumice prevent ships from reaching or leaving the shore.

As the eruption engulfed the cities, many of the people fleeing for their lives paused to grab objects of value such as jewellery and coins. Perhaps they hoped to provide a safeguard against difficult times ahead. Others took objects that held sentimental value. For example, a necklace of the Goddess Isis was found alongside the skeleton of a young pregnant woman. It contained precious metals, glass, unrefined jewels, and was gilded in gold. This necklace has known to have been seen historically as a protection charm, a charm that protected the owner through the Goddess Isis’ protection and divine will.

Ash and pumice stones rain down on Pompeii. People are trapped by blocked doors while ceilings and roofs collapse under the weight of the debris. The residents of the cities met death in different ways and at different times but many of them shared the basic instinct, as they fled, to take things with them that they believed were useful. These led to these artifacts, like lanterns and precious mementoes, to be found today. Pompeii, being downwind from the volcano, was showered with small volcanic stones. No such stones were found in Herculaneum, even though it was closer to Vesuvius. The eruption reaches its peak and unleashes a hurricane of heavier, denser pumice. This causes the widespread collapse of buildings and destabilises the volcanic cloud, triggering the first deadly pyroclastic surge. The cloud reaches its maximum height of over thirty kilometres then collapses spectacularly. A massive pyroclastic surge cascades down Vesuvius’s north-west slopes. It heads for Herculaneum, instantly killing everyone it touches.

The bodies found so far in the cities account for only 10% of their estimated populations. One-third of Pompeii and two-thirds of Herculaneum are still unexcavated and it is possible that many bodies have yet to be uncovered in and around the cities. As dawn breaks, the cloud collapses for the last time. At about 6:30 am a large pyroclastic flow surged towards Pompeii, stopping just short of the city. An hour later another surge overwhelmed Pompeii, the huge pyroclastic surge pours onto Pompeii, smashing remaining buildings and killing all people still present in the town.

Archaeologists have found that there were about two-thousand people walking around on top of the pumice deposit in despair when death struck them. The final event occurred at about 8 am on the 25th August when a sixth surge spread to a much greater distance than previous ones. Thirty kilometres away in Misenum, Pliny the Younger only narrowly escaped death from the sixth surge. The cloud collapses for that last time and darkness spreads across the Bay of Naples. 

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