Mount Vesuvius is a volcano in southern Italy that sat dormant for centuries. That all changed on August 24, 79 AD, when a massive eruption destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, submerging them under layers of volcanic material and mud and killing thousands of people. Here are 10 facts about Mt. Vesuvius and the famous eruption.
1. Mt. Vesuvius is one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.
The only active volcano in mainland Europe, Mt. Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. It is a complex stratovolcano, which is a highly scenic and highly deadly type of volcano. Stratovolcanos have gentle lower slopes, and then rise steeply toward the peak. Their eruptions are explosive and involve pyroclastic flows, which are fast-moving currents of fluidized rock and gases. Mt. Vesuvius is located on the western coast of Italy, making and cities and towns such as Naples highly vulnerable to destruction in an eruption.
2. Although the eruption caught people off guard, the signs had been coming for years.
The people in Pompeii and Herculaneum were taken by complete surprise when the volcano erupted. However, the signs were there in the form of a series of earthquakes. In 63 AD, a massive earthquake shook the region, and damage from the earthquake was still being repaired when Mt. Vesuvius erupted 16 years later.
3. The eruption was catastrophic, lasting more than 24 hours.
The eruption officially started on the morning of August 24, as molten rock and pumice began to be expelled from Mt. Vesuvius at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. Copious amounts of rock and volcanic ash filled the atmosphere, turning day into night. It is estimated that about six inches of ash fell every hour. Around midnight the pyroclastic surges and flows started, and on the morning of the 25th, a toxic cloud of gas descended on Pompeii.
4. We know much of what happened from an eyewitness account.
There is a detailed account of the eruption thanks to Pliny the Younger, who was a Roman administrator and poet. He watched the eruption from afar and questioned survivors, and then wrote of the event in letters to his friend Tacitus. Pliny’s letters, which are the only eyewitness accounts of the eruption, were discovered in the 16th century.
5. Thousands of people were buried alive.
At that time, around 20,000 people — manufacturers, merchants, and farmers — lived in Pompeii, and another 5,000 lived in Herculaneum. The region was a popular summer tourist destination, and there were some smaller towns and resort areas as well. Many of the people who did not flee when the eruption started were buried alive by ash and other molten material. It is estimated that about 16,000 people died in the eruption.
6. There was no attempt to rebuild the cities.
Normally after a natural disaster, cities are rebuilt, but not this time. Apparently the damage was so extensive and the effect of the tragedy so great that no attempts were made to reoccupy the area. Looters, however, did return to Pompeii, digging tunnels through the ash and debris and making away with many of the city’s riches.
7. Pompeii became frozen in time.
Historians believe that Pompeii was buried under 14 to 17 feet of ash and pumice. In 1748 when explorers examined the site, they found that the volcanic ash had acted as a preservative, and many of the buildings and even the skeletons and remnants of city life were still intact. This city frozen in time has provided historians with a glimpse into what life was like in ancient Rome, and more than 1,000 casts have been made of recovered bodies that were preserved in the ash. The city of Herculaneum was less fortunate — it was buried under more than 60 feet of mud and other volcanic material.
8. The excavation of Pompeii influenced 18th-century neoclassicism.
In the 18th century, it became popular for western art, theater, and architecture to draw on Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Scholars believe that this movement, called neoclassicism, was heavily influenced by the excavation of Pompeii.
9. It had happened before.
Though the Romans didn’t know it at the time, Mt. Vesuvius had erupted catastrophically at least twice before. More recent excavations suggest that a huge eruption occurred around 1800 BC, decimating large settlements in the area.
10. It could happen again.
Mt. Vesuvius is still considered an active volcano. The most recent eruption occurred in 1944, and experts believe that a massive eruption could happen again soon, posing potential danger to the more than 2 million people who now live in the area.
Learn more: Top 10 volcanic eruptions
Photo credits: Vesuvius from Plane by Pastorius [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; Vesuvius from Pompeii by Morn the Gorn [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; Pompeii Garden of the Fugitives by Lancevortex [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; Shabbytravel Pompeii Body by Shabbychef [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons