August 24: the ancients called it the mountain of ‘hurling violence’

2012/08/24 § 1 Comment

On this day in 79 AD the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius began.

Locals warily accepted the periodic rumbling of the great mountain, unusual among the other high hills on the western coast of the  Apennine Peninsula for its occasional sputtering and rumbling.  One ancient writer mentioned its unusual “craters of fire.”  Around 60 AD it shook the earth, causing widespread structural damage and the death of hundreds of sheep after it leaked acrid vapors.

In 79 no one thought of it as a curiosity any longer.  For two days the volcano heaved and spewed rock, fire, ash and gas into the sky.  At one point the dark cloud that rose from it climbed twenty miles into the atmosphere.  Devastation fell from the sky as the column of vapor cooled and collapsed.  It created a pyroclastic surge–not the kind of glowing flow usually seen in volcanic eruptions, a surge is not subject to gravity in the same way and is thus faster–600 mph fast–and potentially deadlier.  The surge expelled oxygen for miles in its path, suffocating any person or animal who would otherwise survive its intense heat.  Giant chunks of pumice rained down on the towns at the foot of the mountains, making streets impassable and collapsing houses that buckled under the accumulating weight.  After two days it stopped, having killed an estimated 16,000 who were unable to escape and buried the devastated towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The towns lay in ruin, passing out of use and out of most memory.  Construction workers poked around them starting in the late sixteenth century when preparing ground for other projects.  Excavation began in earnest on both sites in the eighteenth century.  Pompeii was favored as it was covered by a mere 4 m of pumice, stone and dirt; Herculaneum was covered by five times as much debris.

The horrific disaster has yielded both inspiration and insight to later architects and historians.  Starting in the 1740s, archaeologists–a new breed of people not yet quite a profession–found a huge field of discovery to hone their vocation.  Neo-Classical architects gleaned significant insight to ancient design methods and motifs, especially in residential design which is particularly hard to find surviving from antiquity.  The entirety of the towns (still under excavation) yield a snapshot view of life in the first century, quite literally snuffed out in a moment (especially in Herculaneum, where human remains reveal the instantaneousness of death by fulminant shock).  Pompeii and Herculaneum lay as tragic, fascinating exhibits of ancient art and life, portraits of a moment memorialized in a mass graveyard.

Image: View of the Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pierre-Jacques Volaire (ca. 1795)

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