Vesuvius erupts with furious violence and devastating results
Pliny the Elder, the commander of the Roman fleet, was at home in Misenum, which is just at the Northern end of the Bay of Naples working on some papers after having enjoyed a much deserved and relaxing lunch. He was distracted from his work by his sister who had noticed “a cloud of unusual size and appearance”. The date was 24 August, in the year 79. The cloud was rising above the peak of Vesuvius. Upon seeing the cloud, Pliny called for a boat to be readied, but even as he had set out from his home, a message had arrived from the town at the foot of the mountain where the residents were terrified.
Pliny made his way by boat across the bay to the town of Stabiae and during his journey it was already becoming obvious that something terrible was unfolding before his eyes. Vesuvius seemed to be on fire, wrote Pliny the Younger, the elder Pliny’s nephew. “Ashes were already falling,” he wrote, “hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames”. Ash was all the while filling the evening sky and the sight seemed “blacker and denser than any ordinary night”.
Around three miles away, on the fertile foothills of the great mountain stood the wealthy town of Pompeii. Pompeii had seen disasters before as only 17 years earlier, an earthquake had rocked and damaged the town, but the town had been rebuilt. As the ash began to fall on the town though, the citizens of Pompeii began to realise that what was transpiring was far, far worse than anything they had experienced before.
It is almost certain that thousands of people would have been killed by the eruption of Vesuvius, although the true number will probably never be known. Even at Misenum, panic had taken hold. Pliny the Elder’s relatives were waiting for his return, but that would never happen, as the fleet commander had collapsed and died during the chaos. “You could hear the shreiks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives,” wrote Pliny’s nephew. It felt, he added as though, “the whole world was dying with me, and I with it”.