The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ad: history of a disaster

pompei calchi

26 Jul The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ad: history of a disaster

Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy. Goethe, Italian Journey


The famous statement by Goethe is often charged with cynicism but it probably refers to the fact that even if 2000 years ago many people died, now millions of tourists come to visit the area.

If there wasn’t that terrible eruption now we couldn’t enjoy the beauty of Ancient Pompeii.

And yet the devastation caused by Mount Vesuvius was horrible and touching.

A direct proof of what happened was given by Pliny the younger and his letters to the historian Tacitus. Pliny the younger used to live with his uncle Pliny the elder in Miseno, on the other side of the Gulf of Naples, however he attended that dreadful event and recreated it in those letters.

His uncle was pushed by his curiosity and leaved to Pompeii where he was killed by volcanic ash and gas.

The eruption was unexpected, that’s why it caused the death of so many people. But Mount Vesuvius already gave signals of activity such as the earthquake in 62 AD which destroyed part of the city. We can’t define the number of people killed by the eruption in 79 AD because we don’t even exactly know how many people used to live in Pompeii. The only certain data is the discover of 1150 victims.


In the morning of August 24th Pompeii citizens woke up without even imagine what kind of disaster was nearly upon them. At 1:00 pm Mount Vesuvius spewed a huge cloud of pyroclastic surges (volcanic gas, stones and ash) to a height of 14 kilometres, then falling down the Roman city. Panic-stricken people sought refuge in the houses but the weight of volcanic material broke the roofs. At 5 pm people had suffocation attacks. At 8 pm pumice raised up to 140 cm and hot surges (400° temperature) quickly moved to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis. The sea receded away from shore and there was no time left to run away. Pumice stones kept falling and during the night Pompeii was buried.


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