Sunday, 24 August 2014

"Many a calamity has happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much entertainment to posterity as this one." - The End of Pompeii in 79 CE


24 August 79 CE, 1,935 years ago, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius began, burying the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

“On Sunday we were in Pompeii. Many a calamity has happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much entertainment to posterity as this one. ... Thus does the city, which first of all the hot shower of stones and ashes overwhelmed, and afterwards the excavators plundered, still bear witness, even in its present utterly desolate state, to a taste for painting and the arts common to the whole people, of which the most enthusiastic dilettante of the present day has neither idea nor feeling.“ (Goethe “Italian Journey”)
 
An imagination of the end of Pompeii by one artist specialised in fiery cataclysms, John Martin’s “Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum”, 1821




It happened a day after the cities around the Bay of Naples celebrated the Vulcanalia, a festival in honour of Vulcanus, the god of fire, including the fire of volcanoes. As custom demanded, bonfires had been lit and live fish and small animals were thrown into the flames to placate the deity and make him consume these instead of the crops and humans prospering in the shadow of the fiery mountain. And prosper they did indeed. The region was one of the richest of the empire. The town of Herculaneum was a popular summer resort for Rome’s high society and the countryside was scattered with manors and country estates. But in the year of 79 CE, the sacrifices obviously did not placate the god. Around 1 pm, the 18 years old lawyer Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, across the bay in Misenum, did not fail to notice the thunderclap that was heard all across Campania when the plug that had sealed the volcanic pipe of Mount Vesuvius was blown sky high by the rapidly increasing pressure in the magma chamber. Then, a cloud rose rapidly above the volcano. Pliny wrote two his friend, the historian Tacitus, 25 years later: “I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree; for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches. ... Occasionally it was brighter, occasionally darker and spotted, as it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders.“ A pine tree that quickly rose to a height of more than 10 miles into the stratosphere. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius had begun.




Karl Brullov: "The Last Day of Pompeii" (1830 - 1833)






Those being in their senses fled the towns as fast as they could, many chose to stay, though, and died during the next 18 hours, suffocated, buried under the collapsing roofs and rocks thrown out of the volcano and those who survived that finally fell to the following pyroclastic surge. About 16,000 inhabitants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae perished in the catastrophe. Pliny’s uncle Pliny the Elder, admiral of the imperial fleet based at Misenum and quite the naturalist, first set out to study the phenomenon that quickly turned into a cataclysm and trying to rescue a friend in Stabiae, the ageing, portly gentleman died probably of asthma and a heart attack on the beach, while the fleet was unable to save more than just a few coastal dwellers in the strong winds and the arising tsunami that followed the earthquakes accompanying the catastrophe. And to this day, severe volcanic eruptions are rated Plinian or even Ultra Plinian in honour of the two Plinies.



Friedrich Federer: "Pompeii from the Southeast" (1850)





Over the next 1,500 years, Pompeii and the other towns lay buried under up to 60’ of ash and pumice. And while some attempts were made to salvage valuables from the still visible remnants of former luxury and grave robbers tried to get what they could from accessible ruins again and again during late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the first serious attempts of excavating Pompeii began under the influence of Winckelmann in 1763. Since then, the second history of the town began as a central object of classical archaeology and one of the best preserved ruins of an Imperial Roman city in the world. The fate of the place itself and its doomed inhabitants exalted imagination ever since and “Pompeii” became almost synonymous with the destruction of a settled living environment by a natural disaster, while artists depicted its fate in paintings, novels, songs and films, admittedly more often than not with an eruption of artistic license.