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Vesuvius And The Destruction Of Pompeii

( Originally Published 1906 )

Most Famous Volcanic Eruption in History—Roman Cities Overwhelmed—Scenes of Horror Described by Pliny, the Great Classic Writer, an Eye-Witness of the Disaster—Buried in Ashes and Lava—The Stricken Towns Preserved tor Centuries and Excavated in Modern Times as a Wonderful Museum of the Life of i800 Years Ago.

MOUNT VESUVIUS, the world-famed volcano of southern Italy, seen as it is from every part of the city of Naples and its neighborhood, forms the most prominent feature of that portion of the frightful and romantic Campanian coast. For many centuries it has been an object of the greatest interest, and certainly not the least of the many attractions of one of the most notable cities of Europe. Naples, with its bay constitutes as grand a panorama as any to be seen in the world. The mountain is a link in the historical chain which binds us to the past, which takes us back to the days of the Roman Empire. Before the days of Titus it seems to have been unknown as a volcano, and its summit is supposed to have been crowned by a temple of Jupiter.

In the year 25 A.D., Strabo, an eminent historian of the time, wrote: "About these places rises Vesuvius, well cultivated and inhabited all round, except at its top, which is for the most part level, and entirely barren, ashy to the view, displaying cavernous hollows in cineritious rocks, which look as if they had been eaten by fire; so that we may suppose this spot to, have been a volcano formerly, with burning craters, now extinguished for want of fuel."

Though Strabo was a great historian, it is evident that he was not a prophet. The subsequent history of Vesuvius has shown that at varying periods the mountain has burst forth in great eruptive activity.

Herculaneum was a city of great antiquity, its origin being ascribed by Greek tradition to Hercules, the celebrated hero of the mythological age of Greece; but it is not certain that it was actually founded by a Greek colony, though in the time of Sulla, who lived a hundred years before Christ, it was a municipal and fortified town. Situated on an elevated ground between two rivers, its position could not but be considered important, its port Retina being one of the best on the coast of Campania. Many villas of great splendor were owned in the neighborhood by Roman patricians; Servilia, the mother of Brutus, and the favorite mistress of Julius Caesar, resided here on an estate which he had given to her.

Pompeii, too, was a very ancient city, and was probably founded by a Grecian colony; for what is considered its oldets building, a Greek temple, from its similarity to the Praestum temples, fixes the date of construction with some certainty at about 65o B.C. This temple, by common consent, is stated to have been dedicated to Hercules, who, according to Solonus, landed at this spot with a procession of oxen.

The situation of Pompeii possessed many local advantages. Upon the verge of the sea, at the mouth of the Sarno, with a fertile plain behind, like many an ancient Italian town, it united the conveniences of commerce with the security of a military station. According to Strabo, Pompeii was first occupied by the Oscans, subsequently by the Tyrrhenians and Pelasgians, and afterwards by the Samnites, in whose hands it continued until it came into the possession of the Romans. The delightful position of the city, the genial climate of the locality, and its many attractions, caused it to become a favorite retreat of the wealthier Romans, who purchased estates in the neighborhood; Cicero, among others, having a villa there.

In A.D. 63, during the reign of Nero, an earthquake over-threw a considerable portion of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Scarcely had the inhabitants in some measure recovered from their alarm, and begun to rebuild their shattered edifices, when a still more terrible catastrophe occurred, and the first recorded eruption of Vesuvius, on the 23d of August, A.D. 79, completed the ruin of the two cities.

Of this event we fortunately possess a singularly graphic description by one who was not only an eye-witness, but well qualified to observe and record its phenomena—Pliny, the Younger, whose narrative is contained in two letters addressed to the historian Tacitus. These letters run as follows:

"Your request," he writes, "that I would send you an account of my uncle's death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, merits my acknowledgements; for should the calamity be celebrated by your pen, its memory, I feel assured, will be rendered imperishable. He was at that time, with the fleet under his command, at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which seemed of unusual shape and dimensions. He had just returned from taking the benefit of the sun, and after a cold water bath and a slight repast, had retired to his study. He immediately arose, and proceeded to a rising ground, from whence he might more distinctly mark this very uncommon appearance.

"At that distance it could not be clearly perceived from what mountain the cloud issued, but it was afterward ascertained to proceed from Mount Vesuvius. I cannot better describe its figure than by comparing it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height like a trunk, and extended itself at the top into a kind of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upward, or by the expansion of the cloud itself, when pressed back again by its own weight. Sometimes it appeared bright, and sometimes dark and spotted, as it became more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This extraordinary phenomenon excited my uncle's philosophical curiosity to inquire into it more closely. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready for him, and invited me to accompany him if I pleased. I replied that I would rather continue my studies.

"As he was leaving the house, a note was brought to him from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent peril which threatened her; for her villa being situated at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, the only mode of escape was by the sea. She earnestly entreated him, there-fore, to hasten to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first design, and what he began out of curiosity, now continued out of heroism. Ordering the galleys to put to sea, he went on board, with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but several others, for the villas are very numerous along that beautiful shore. Hastening to the very place which other people were abandoning in terror, he steered directly toward the point of danger, and with so much composure of mind that he was able to make and to dictate his observations on the changes and aspects of that dreadful scene.

"He was now so nigh the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the vessel, together with pumice-stones and black pieces of burning rock; and now the sudden ebb of the sea, and vast fragments rolling from the mountain, obstructed their nearer approach to the shore. Pausing to consider whether he should turn back again, to which he was advised by his pilot, he exclaimed, `Fortune befriends the brave: carry me to Pomponianus.'

"Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a gulf which the sea, after several windings, forms upon the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though not at that time in actual danger, yet being within prospect of it, he was determined, if it drew nearer, to put to sea as soon as the wind should change. The wind was favorable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation. He embraced him tenderly, encouraging and counselling him to keep up his spirits; and still better to dissipate his alarm, he ordered, with an air of unconcern, the baths to be got ready. After having bathed, he sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or, what was equally courageous, with all the semblance of it.

"Meanwhile, the eruption from Mount Vesuvius broke forth in several places with great violence, and the darkness of the night contributed to render it still more visible and dreadful. But my uncle, to soothe the anxieties of his friend, declared it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames. After this, he retired to rest; and it is certain he was so little discomposed as to fall into a deep sleep; for being somewhat corpulent, and breathing hard, those who attended without actually heard him snore.

"The court which led to his apartment being nearly filled with stones and ashes, it would have been impossible for him, had he continued there longer, to have made his w ay out; it was thought proper, therefore, to awaken him. He got up and joined Pomponianus and the rest of his company who were not unconcerned enough to think of going to bed. They consulted together which course would be the more prudent: to trust to the houses, which now shook from side to side with frequent and violent concussions; or to escape to the open country, where the calcined stones and cinders fell in such quantities, as notwithstanding their lightness, to threaten destruction. In this dilemma they decided on the open country, as offering the greater chance of safety; a resolution which, while the rest of the company hastily adopted it through their fears, my uncle embraced only after cool and deliberate consideration. Then they went forth, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their sole defence against the storm of stones that fell around them.

"It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the obscurest night, though it was in some degree dissipated by torches and lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go down further upon the shore, to ascertain whether they might safely put out to sea; but found the waves still extremely high and boisterous. There my uncle, having drunk a draught or two of cold water, flung him-self down upon a cloth which was spread for him, when immediately the flames and their precurser, a strong stench of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the company, and compelled him to rise. He raised himself with the assistance of two of the servants, but instantly fell down dead; suffocated, I imagine by some gross and noxious vapor. As soon as it was light again, which was not until the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and free from any sign of violence, exactly in the same posture that he fell, so that he looked more like one asleep than dead."

In a second letter to Tacitus, Pliny in relating his own experiences, says:

"Day was rapidly breaking, but the light was exceedingly faint and languid; the buildings all around us tottered; and though we stood upon open ground, yet, as the area was narrow and confined, we could not remain without certain and formidable peril, and we therefore resolved to quit the town. The people followed us in a panic of alarm, and, as to a mind distracted with terror every suggestion seems more prudent than its own, pressed in great crowds about us in our way out.

"As soon as we had reached a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a perilous and most dreadful scene. The chariots which we had ordered to be drawn out oscillated so violently, though upon level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its strands by the earth's convulsive throes; it is certain, at least, that the shore was considerably enlarged, and that several marine animals were left upon it. On the other side, a black and terrible cloud, bursting with an igneous serpentine vapor, darted out a long train of fire, resembling, but much larger than the flashes of lightning.

"Soon after the black cloud seemed to descend and enshroud the whole ocean; as, in truth, it entirely concealed the island of Caprea and the headland of Misenum. The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no considerable quantity. Turning my head, I perceived behind us a dense smoke, which came rolling ,in our track like a torrent. I pro-posed, while there was yet some light, to diverge from the highroad, lest my mother should be crushed to death in the dark by the crowd that followed us. Scarcely had we stepped aside when darkness overspread us; not the darkness of a cloudy night, or when there is no moon, but that of a chamber which is close shut, with all the lights extinct.

"And then nothing could be heard but the shrieks of women, the cries of children, and the exclamations of men. Some called aloud for their little ones, others for their parents, others for their husbands, being only able to distinguish persons by their voices; this man lamented his own fate, that man the fate of his family; not a few wished to die out of very fear of death; many lifted their hands to the gods; but most imagined the last eternal night was come, which should destroy the world and the gods together.

"At length, a glimmer of light 'appeared, which we imagined to be rather the foretoken of an approaching burst of flames, as in truth it was, than the return of day. The fire, however, having fallen at a distance from us, we were again immersed in dense darkness, and heavy shower of ashes fell upon us, which we were compelled at times to shake off- otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap.

"After a while, this dreadful darkness gradually disappeared like a cloud of smoke; the actual day returned, arid with it the sun, though very faintly, and as when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes (which were extremely weakened) seemed changed, being covered with a crust of white ashes, like a deep layer of snow. We returned to Misenum, where we refreshed ourselves as well as we could, and passed an anxious night between hope and fear, though, indeed, with a much larger share of the latter; for the earthquake still continued, while several excited individuals ran up and down, augmenting their own and their friends' calamities by terrible predictions."

The graphic accounts of Pliny the Younger have been confirmed in every respect by scientific examination of the buried cities. The eruption was terrible in all its circumstances—the rolling mud, the cloud of darkness, the flashes of electric fire, the shaking earth—but yet more terrible in its novelty of character and the seemingly wide range of its influence. These combined causes would appear to have exercised a fatal effect on the Pompeians, and but for them nearly all might have escaped. Thus, the amphitheatre was crowded when the catastrophe occurred, but only two or three skeletons have been found in it, which probably were those of gladiators already killed or wounded. The bold, the prompt, and the energetic T saved themselves by immediate flight; those who lingered through love or avarice, supine indifference, or palsying fear, perished.

Many sought refuge in the lower rooms or underground cellars of their houses, but there the steaming mud pursued and overtook them. Had it been otherwise, they must have died of hunger or suffocation, as all avenues of egress were absolutely blocked up.

It is impossible to exaggerate the horrors of the last day of the doomed city. The rumbling of the earth beneath; the dense obscurity and murky shadow of the heaven above; the long, heavy roll of the convulsed sea; the strident noise of the vapors and gases escaping from the mountain-crater; the shifting electric lights, crimson, emerald green, lurid yellow, azure, blood red, which at intervals relieved the blackness, only to make it ghastlier than before; the hot, hissing showers which descended like a rain of fire; the clash and clang of meeting rocks and riven stones; the burning houses and flaming vineyards; the hurrying fugitives, with wan faces and straining eyeballs, calling on those they loved to follow them; the ashes, and cinders, and boiling mud, driving through the darkened streets, and pouring into the public places; above all, that fine, impalpable, but choking dust which entered everywhere, penetrating even to the lowest cellar, and against which human skill could devise no effectual protection; all these things must have combined into a whole of such unusual and such awful terror that the imagination cannot adequately realize it. The stoutest heart was appalled; the best-balanced mind lost its composure. The stern Roman soldier stood rigidly at his post, content to die if discipline required it, but even his iron nerves quailed at the death and destruction around him. Many lost their reason, and wandered through the city, gibbering and shrieking lunatics. And none, we may be sure, who survived the peril, ever forgot the sights and scenes they had witnessed on that day of doom.

Three days and nights were thus endured with all the anguish of suspense and uncertainty. On the fourth day the darkness, by degrees, began to clear away. The day appeared, the sun shining forth; but all nature seemed changed. Buried beneath the lava lay temple and circus, the tribunal, the shrine, the frescoed wall, the bright mosaic floor; but there was neither life nor motion in either city of the dead, though the sea which once bore their argosies still shimmered in the sunshine, and the mountain which accomplished their destruction still breathed forth smoke and fire.

The scene was changed; all was over; smoke and vapor and showers had ceased, and Vesuvius had returned to its normal slumber. Pompeii and Herculaneum were no more. In their place was a desolated plain, with no monuments visible, no house to be seen—nothing but a great surface of white ashes, which hardened and petrified, and finally disintegrated into soil upon which, years after, might be seen the fruitful vine, the waving corn, and wild flowers in all their loveliness and beauty, hiding the hideous tragedy of a bygone age.

It was about the middle of the eighteenth century that systematic excavations in the ashes that covered Pompeii began. Since that time the work has been slow, though continuous, and great progress has been made in disinterring the buried city. To-day it is a municipal museum of the Roman Empire as it was ',Soo years ago. The architecture is almost unmarred; the colors of decorated tiles on the walls are still bright; the wheel marks are fresh looking; the picture of domestic life as it was is complete, except for the people who were destroyed or driven from the city. No other place in all the world so completely portrays that period of the past to us as does Pompeii, overwhelmed by Vesuvius, hidden for centuries, and now once more in view to the world today.



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