The Tragedy and Beauty of Pompeii That Remains After the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius

The excavated city of Pompeii. located at the foot of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.

The ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii are listed as one of the Unesco World Heritage Sites. (Image: Maksym Kalinin via Dreamstime)

As of July 2021, a total of 1,154 World Heritage Sites exist across the world. Out of 167 countries, Italy has the most sites under the Unesco World Heritage Sites list, with 58 selected areas. One of those areas that is included, which has always been on my travel bucket list, is Pompeii. 

Modern Pompeii is mainly famous for the ruins of the ancient city of the same name, located in the zone of the Pompei Scavi in Naples. In 2016, an estimate was that Pompeii had over 25,000 people living there. 

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Historically, Pompeii was first written about in 310 B.C. when a Roman fleet landed at its port during the Second Samnite War. Pompeii later went on to join the Italians in their revolt against Rome and was besieged by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 89 B.C. Following the war, Pompeii received Roman citizenship.  

However, as punishment for their involvement during the war, Publius Sulla, nephew of the Roman general, established a colony of Roman veterans. Thus, with time, the city became Romanized in institutions, architecture, and culture. 

By the turn of the first century A.D., the town of Pompeii was a flourishing resort for Rome’s most distinguished citizens, with elegant houses and elaborate villas lining the paved streets. In A.D. 79, about 12,000 people lived in there and almost as many in the town’s surrounding areas. 

The ruins of a Pompeii Roman house with columns and a garden.
Pompeii was a flourishing resort for Rome’s most distinguished citizens. (Image: Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes via Dreamstime)

Pompeii rocked by an earthquake

Historians for decades have written about the daily lives of ancient Romans and that life back then was made up of “simple actions.” It is a far cry from our modern “stressful lives.” Ancient Pompeii draws parallels to modern-day towns, with barbershops used for haircuts and socializing along with marketplaces bustling with tourists and townspeople. However, in February of A.D. 62, Pompeii was rocked by an earthquake eruption from Mount Vesuvius. 

Mount Vesuvius is a somma-stratovolcano located in the Gulf of Naples in Campania. It is one of the several volcanoes that form the Campanian volcanic arc. 

Originating beneath Mount Vesuvius, the quake caused significant damage to the town. It was recorded by the historian Seneca that subsequent tremors lasted for several days, also causing heavy damage to a neighboring town, Herculaneum. Because the seismic activity was so familiar to the inhabitants, they paid little attention to the several quakes that shook the earth beneath Herculaneum and Pompeii in August A.D. 79 until it was too late. 

Much of what we know about the eruption comes from an account by Pliny the Younger, who, aged 17, was staying west along the Bay of Naples when Mount Vesuvius exploded. He provided accounts about witnessing people “covering their heads with pillows to protect themselves from falling stones” and how a “dark and horrible cloud charged with combustible matter suddenly broke and set forth.” Pliny later went on to become a noted Roman writer and administrator. 

Volcanic eruption, reminiscent of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii.
Pliny the Younger described a ‘dark and horrible cloud’ that issued forth from Mount Vesuvius. (Image: Satori13 via Dreamstime)

In 2017 scientists discovered that a tear in the African plate beneath Mount Vesuvius was to blame for the furious eruption, which became a significant part of history. The reported tear forms a “slab window” that allows heat from the Earth’s mantle layer to melt the rock of the African plate, building up pressure that causes violent and explosive eruptions. 

Of the many reported eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, its most famous eruption occurred in A.D. 79, known to be one of the deadliest in European history. Although exact figures are yet to be determined, up to 16,000 people may have lost their lives in Pompeii and neighboring towns. Yet Pompeii and Herculaneum were largely forgotten about and remained buried under a thick layer of volcanic material and mud throughout history. 

Since being rediscovered in the 18th century, the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum have been progressively excavated. As a result, Pompeii, with its well-preserved buildings, is the only archaeological site worldwide that provides a complete picture of an ancient Roman city.  

I found it fascinating that bodies were left so perfectly preserved that two men were found in a clear embrace. Pompeii still bears historical graffiti on its walls. An election was imminent before the eruption, and the many sprawled political slogans still visible today bear testament to that. 

Researchers for many years have engaged with Pompeii, recording and analyzing their predecessors’ excavations, bringing new science to old finds, and making discoveries as they try to save and restore what remains. Work continues to be carried out across Pompeii and Herculaneum to conserve the beauty following such a tragedy, which still has us talking in present times.

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