Mount Vesuvius has become familiar to many people from the time that archaeologists began to search for the world that had been buried during the eruption of 79 AD. Yet it is one of the smallest active volcanoes in the world and the only active volcano on the European continent. The name, Vesuvius or Vesbius means 'unextinguished'.
When a volcano is active, there are usually several calm years between eruptions. During calm times people settled near the mountain. People still choose to settle near Vesuvius as well as around Mt. Etna in Sicily because the volcanic ash provides rich soil suitable for producing excellent wine grapes. The wine produced from the grapes around Vesuvius today is called 'Lacrima Christi'. People feel secure because tranquil times can last up to 2000 years; stories of eruptions become folk tales. People feel safe. However, as long as the volcano is active, they are living atop a live bomb. Today there are over 2 million people living in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that has erupted more than 50 times since 79 A.D.
For the residents in and around the Bay of Naples, there was a calm of 100 years prior to the activity that prompted the eruption of 79. One can assume that there had been some tremors during this 'calm' period, so it is understandable that the residents were not concerned when the mountain began to rumble. I lived in Tokyo many years ago; there were frequent earthquake tremors which we took as calmly as if a large truck had passed by causing dishes to rattle. One gets used to the ordinary.
However the ordinary sometimes becomes extraordinary. Seneca reported that a large scale earthquake occurred on 5 February 62 (according to Tacitus) or perhaps 63 AD. This earthquake caused significant damage to both Pompeii and Herculaneum with minor damage in Naples where the emperor Nero happened to be performing in the theatre. Seneca wrote that the earthquakes continued for several days, probably referring to aftershocks. He wrote that the earthquakes became gradually less severe but nonetheless caused considerable damage.
Repairs from the earthquakes of 62 were still being made in Pompeii and Herculaneum seventeen years later when the earth began to shake again. There were many shocks. Dio Cassius (150-235 AD) wrote that several days before the eruptions of 79 there were earthquakes; the ground was groaning and 'giants' were roaming the earth. I imagine that several who had homes elsewhere left but, while the earthquake of 62 might have been fresh in their minds, an eruption had not happened for over 100 years. No one forsaw the disaster that would strike.
The eruption began the morning of 24 August, one day after the annual celebration of Volcanalia, the festival for the god of fire and forge, Vulcan. A cloud of ash and pumice 12 miles high shot from the central cone as if from a canon. Midday became like midnight as the city of Pompeii, just 5 miles from the volcano, was covered with six inches of ash and pumice within one hour. Herculaneum was even closer to the mountain but being upwind of the volcano it was covered with a light coating of ash. Around midnight, the column from the volcano collapsed and the mountainside was filled with a glowing avalanche of boiling gases, pumice and rocks which flowed over Herculaneum burying the city under 65 feet of hot volcanic matter. The town was sealed as if a layer of concrete had been poured over it.
The following morning, a fourth avalanche sent hot gases and more ash to bury Pompeii and its inhabitants to a depth of 12 feet. Other areas in the region such as Stabia and Oplontis were also buried in the ash and pumice. Pliny the Elder wrote, 'this district was on fire and had craters of fire and then because the fuel gave out, was quenched.' Geography V.4. Two more surges followed, the sixth and last, causing Pliny the Younger to flee Misenum as he and the other residents watched 'a fearful black cloud...rent by forded and quivering bursts of flame' move across the bay. The earthquake stirred up huge waves in the bay and fallout from the eruption covered the area with what looked like heavy dust. Misenum itself was not damaged.
Since that fateful day there have been subsequent eruptions that have reshaped the mountain. They occurred about every 100 years until 1037. During the following six hundred years there was relative calm during which the mountain was reforested. However, on 16 Dec. 1631, a major eruption destroyed all the towns that had grown at the foot of the mountain (remember the soil is rich and there had been little or no activity from the volcano for a very long time). Over the next 300 years there were 23 eruptions of various degrees. The last known eruption was in 1944 when the Allied forces were atttacking Italy. The volcano bubbles and smokes yet today. With modern technology, the people living in the area should be given adequate warning prior to any future eruption. Property will be damaged but lives can be saved.
Joan Jahnige, January 2004
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