There can be few places in the world which spell out the tragic human experiences of a volcanic eruption more poignantly than Pompeii. Subjected to a 19-hour long eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the Roman towns of Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum were obliterated along with scores of their inhabitants on a fateful August day which has gone down in history as one of the most infamous volcanic eruptions of all time.
An ancient account of the eruption has been left to us by the writer Pliny the Younger, who lost his uncle to the suffocating fumes and ash which thundered from the volcano. In a letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, he described a “cloud of unusual size and appearance”, and wrote of his uncle’s “scholarly nature” compelling him to get a closer look at the eruption from a boat. This turned into a rescue mission to retrieve those stranded in the danger zone as the ash and pumice began falling thickly. As night fell, Vesuvius began emitting “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames”, as Pliny the Elder valiantly “tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror”. He later succumbed to the fumes, while thousands more were killed by falling rocks, collapsing roofs and, of course, the pyroclastic flow.
Having read this account, and having seen the pictures of the famous plaster casts which have crystallised the horrifying dying moments of countless Romans in grim detail, visiting Pompeii today is an eerie but fascinating experience. On a scorching sunny day, it is difficult to envisage the scenes of terror described by Pliny: “the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, the shouts of men”. But as the visitor explores the endless Roman streets, some of which even preserve the track marks of the innumerable Roman carts which once trundled along them, Vesuvius looms menacingly on the horizon as a constant reminder of the fragility of human life in such close proximity to this unstoppable force of nature.
The town is invaluable to archaeologists in that it provides a snapshot of a complete Roman town at one specific moment in its history. Ash deposits and the effects of carbonisation from the intense heat of the eruption have preserved everything from loaves of bread to stunning frescoes and mosaics, and while most of the smaller finds are now housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum for safekeeping, the scale of the surviving ruins available to explore is incredible. Set aside at least a day to explore Pompeii properly, and be sure to visit the amphitheatre, the gladiator barracks, the aristocratic houses such as the House of the Vettii and House of the Faun, and of course the Forum with its dramatic backdrop of Vesuvius.
My highlight? Undoubtedly the charming Cave Canem (‘beware of the dog’) mosaic at the entrance to the romantically named ‘House of the Tragic Poet’: a reminder that, though two thousand years may separate us from the lives of the unfortunate residents of Pompeii, their everyday concerns were often no different to ours today. It is these reminders of daily life which make the experience of exploring Pompeii so moving – and which cause the visitor to cast an anxious glance at the dark, foreboding slopes of Vesuvius, lest they too become swept up in another cataclysmic episode in the history of this ill-fated town.
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