The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae, as well as several other settlements. The eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ashes and volcanic gases to a height of 33 km (21 mi), erupting molten rock and pulverized pumice and ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. More than 1,000 people died in the eruption, but exact numbers are unknown. The only surviving eyewitness account of the event consists of two letters by Pliny the Younger to the historian Tacitus.
On August 23, Mount Vesuvius begins stirring, on the feast day of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. The Vulcanalia was the annual festival held August 23 in his honor. His Greek counterpart is Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery. In Etruscan religion, he is identified with Sethlans.
The festival of Vulcan, the Vulcanalia, was celebrated on August 23 each year, when the summer heat placed crops and granaries most at risk of burning. During the festival bonfires were created in honour of the god, into which live fish or small animals were thrown as a sacrifice, to be consumed in the place of humans.
Through his identification with the Hephaestus of Greek mythology, Vulcan came to be considered as the manufacturer of art, arms, iron, jewelry, and armor for various gods and heroes, including the lightning bolts of Jupiter. He was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and the husband of Maia and Aphrodite (Venus). His smithy was believed to be situated underneath Mount Etna in Sicily.
As the son of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Juno, the queen of the gods, Vulcan should have been quite handsome, but baby Vulcan was small and ugly with a red, bawling face. Juno was so horrified that she hurled the tiny baby off the top of Mount Olympus.
Vulcan fell down for a day and a night, landing in the sea. Unfortunately, one of his legs broke as he hit the water, and never developed properly. Vulcan sank to the depths of the ocean, where the sea-nymph Thetis found him and took him to her underwater grotto, raising him as her own son.
Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.
Vulcan carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell, took it back to his underwater grotto, and made a fire with it. On the first day after that, Vulcan stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metal into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields.
Later, Thetis left her underwater grotto to attend a dinner party on Mount Olympus wearing a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Vulcan had made for her. Juno admired the necklace and asked where she could get one. Thetis became flustered, causing Juno to become suspicious; and, at last, the queen god discovered the truth: the baby she had once rejected had grown into a talented blacksmith.
Juno was furious and demanded that Vulcan return home, a demand that he refused. However, he did send Juno a beautifully constructed chair made of silver and gold, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Juno was delighted with this gift but, as soon as she sat in it her weight triggered hidden springs and metal bands sprung forth to hold her fast. The more she shrieked and struggled the more firmly the mechanical throne gripped her; the chair was a cleverly designed trap.
For three days Juno sat fuming, still trapped in Vulcan’s chair; she could not sleep, she could not stretch, she could not eat. It was Jupiter who finally promised that if Vulcan released Juno he would give him a wife, Venus the goddess of love and beauty. Vulcan agreed and married Venus. He later built a smithy under Mount Etna on the island of Sicily. It was said that whenever Venus was unfaithful, Vulcan grew angry and beat the red-hot metal with such a force that sparks and smoke rose up from the top of the mountain, creating a volcanic eruption.