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This Week In History

Hell on Earth – August 24, 79 AD

“Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night… it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.” –Pliny the Younger, describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the early afternoon of August 24, 79 AD, from around 18 miles away in Misenum. This is a category  titus denarius.

Pompeii Casa del Centenario

Fresco in the House of the Centenary

The volcano erupted in two dramatic, and very deadly, phases. The first, an eruption which shot columns of gas, pumice and volcanic ash into the stratosphere had a shape like a pine tree, and was subsequently named after Pliny the Elder (today called Plinian eruptions). This first phase, lasting 18-20 hours, punished the area with spewing its cloud 20+ miles upward at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The second phase immediately followed – a pyroclastic flow, obliterating Herculaneum with 900°F heat blasts and 75 feet of ash, and burying, burning and asphyxiating Pompeii under 10 feet. Nearby Boscoreale, Oplontis and Stabiae were also lost during the eruption to the solidified volcanic tuff.

During the reigns of Titus (as augustus) and Domitian (as caesar), there was a series of coinage issued from January 1-July 1, 80 AD. According to RIC (Mattingly and Sydenham, Roman Imperial Coins, Volume II, p.114, 2001 edition) “It was perhaps the eruption of Vesuvius that prompted the issue of the series of “supplicatio” coins, in both denarius and aureus modules, showing the exhibition of the emblems of the gods on “pulvinari” in their temples.”

Vesuvian Issues

Pompeii was forgotten for centuries and was accidentally rediscovered in 1599. While digging a channel to subvert the Sarno River, underground ancient walls with paintings and frescoes were revealed. Official excavations began in 1748 of both Pompeii and Herculaneum. From household shrines discovered in Pompeii, the volcano was considered a genius divinity and was represented by a serpent. An inscription to IOVI VESVVIO, or Jupiter Vesuvius, was found in nearby Capua. Excavations continue today and Pompeii is a very popular tourist attraction. Unfortunately, more recent natural events have severely damaged some buildings within Pompeii and the Italian government is unable to keep up with all of the demands in properly conserving the site. To read more on some of the recent collapses, go to http://www.npr.org/2010/12/02/131581852/a-collapse-in-pompeii-highlights-neglect-in-italy

Also interesting are some revelations coming to light because of the Pompeian excavations. Although the date of the eruption is generally accepted as having started on August 24, relying on one version of the text of Pliny’s letter, another version of the letter gives the date of the eruption as November 23 (Grant, Michael, Cities of Vesuvius, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1976, p.223 (footnote no.6 to ch.2)). In support of this later date are several pieces of evidence:

  • People buried in the ash appear to be wearing warmer clothing than the light summer clothes that would be expected in August.
  • The fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October, and conversely the summer fruit that would have been typical of August was already being sold in dried, or conserved form.
  • Wine fermenting jars had been sealed over, and this would have happened around the end of October.
  • The coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include one with an reverse inscription for Titus’s fifteenth imperatorial acclamation among the emperor’s titles. This cannot have been minted before the second week of September. So far there is no definitive theory as to why there should be such an apparent discrepancy if the eruption did occur in August.

Mount Vesuvius was declared a national park on June 5, 1995 and visitors can reach the summit via winding paths that are maintained by the park authorities. Pompeii and Herculaneum are both on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, but conservation and restoration has proven difficult because of the way the cities were preserved by the eruption and the way the remains react with exposure to the elements today. Both cities can be visited today, but much remains to be excavated and preserved and artifacts from both can be found in nearby museums.

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