In the year 79 AD, the volcano Mount Vesuvius exploded, wiping out the city of Pompeii so quickly that thousands of years later, it still survives as though everything has been frozen in time. Two thousand people were killed.
A witness, Pliny the Younger, wrote:
“The carts that we had ordered brought were moving in opposite directions, though the ground was perfectly flat, and they wouldn’t stay in place even with their wheels blocked by stones. In addition, it seemed as though the sea was being sucked backwards, as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline moved outwards, and many sea creatures were left on dry sand. Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightning twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame. These were like lightning, but bigger……. It wasn’t long thereafter that the cloud stretched down to the ground and covered the sea. It girdled Capri and made it vanish, it hid Misenum’s promontory. Then my mother began to beg and urge and order me to flee however I might, saying that a young man could make it, that she, weighed down in years and body, would die happy if she escaped being the cause of my death. I replied that I wouldn’t save myself without her, and then I took her hand and made her walk a little faster. She obeyed with difficulty, and blamed herself for delaying me.
Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. “Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.” We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting……………. It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death. At last the cloud thinned out and dwindled to no more than smoke or fog. Soon there was real daylight. The sun was even shining, though with the lurid glow it has after an eclipse. The sight that met our still terrified eyes was a changed world, buried in ash like snow.”
The city was untouched and almost unknown until the 1500s, and not fully explored for another 150 years after that. But through all that time, the artifacts of Pompeii were preserved by the lack of air and moisture, and because nothing was built over them. Now fortified with plaster, it provides an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city. And the remains of the people who were killed are so vivid and immediate they connect us with the humanity and the loss in a way that no statue or painting or writing can.
Exposure and vandalism have caused the remains to deteriorate, and scholars are working to maintain the site as well as they can. The 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators collapsed in 2010, probably due to water damage.
This week’s movie, starring Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones,” puts fictional characters in the real-life setting, re-creating the House of the Gladiators and other structures as they were when the volcano exploded.
For more on the history of Pompeii, see Ancient Mysteries – Pompeii: Buried Alive and Pompeii: Doomed City or read The Complete Pompeii and Grafitti and other Sources on Pompeii and Herculaneum.