Visual by: Kunal Kaustav Duwarah
Some cities have the tragic distinction of being synonymous with destruction: Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden to name a few. But perhaps there’s nowhere in history as famously annihilated as the lost Roman city of Pompeii. The story of Pompeii’s sudden doomsday demise has been romanticized in art for centuries and continues to ignite research and wonder the world over – nearly 2,000 years after the city was wiped off the Roman Empire’s map.
Where and what was Pompeii?
Pompeii was the ancient Roman city, located in Campania, Italy, 14 miles (23 km) southeast of Naples, at the south-eastern base of Mount Vesuvius.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Pompeii was a bustling city located in what is now southern Italy. But in the summer of A.D. 79, the nearby Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted as many of its 10,000 residents—vanished under a blanket of ash.
Pompeii was basically lost and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1748. Thanks to excavations, which are still going on today, scientists have been able to figure out almost exactly what happened on that terrible day. The Roman city of Pompeii is a wonder of archaeology where new discoveries are occurring even after centuries of excavation.
History of Pompeii
In many TV series and even the movie ‘Pompeii,’ itself depicts it as a Roman city where Gladiators fight for their freedom, but the truth is, Greeks developed and inhibited it in the first place.
A bustling hub of commerce and hedonism, Pompeii in its heyday was awash with lavish villas, luxurious bathhouses, 24-hour wine taverns, busy market stalls, bakeries, theatres, and brothels. Being a Roman city, it also boasted an impressive amphitheatre on the outskirts of town, where violent gladiator battles ensured the local masses and important emissaries visiting Pompeii were never not entertained. Aside from the occasional earthquake, life in the lost city was pretty cushy by ancient standards. At least it was for the average lifespan of 35 years that the non-gladiator classes enjoyed in those days.
The fertile land, the mountains, and the beautiful, wide, and stretched coastline gave rise to the popularity of Pompeii and many well-off and distinguished citizens flocked to the already thriving city to make it more sophisticated by building elegant houses, beautiful villas, brothels, shops, great markets, and factories.
Eruption from Mount Vesuvius
Around noon on August 24, 79 CE, a huge eruption from Mount Vesuvius showered volcanic debris over the city of Pompeii, followed the next day by clouds of blisteringly hot gases. Buildings were destroyed, the population was crushed or asphyxiated, and the city was buried beneath a blanket of ash and pumice.
The eruption and subsequent damage took place over two main stages.
The initial blast occurred when tectonic activity caused seawater to leak into underground magma chambers, creating one big geological pressure-cooker under Vesuvius that no mountaintop could contain. The resulting explosion sent millions of tons of incandescent ash, pumice, toxic gases, and molten rock into the upper atmosphere at supersonic speeds. This formed a massive billowing column that stretched upwards for 22 kilometres and darkened the sky over Pompeii.
What goes up must come down and it wasn’t long before a storm of white-hot ash and pumice began to rain down over the city. But it was during these first few hours that escape was actually still possible.
Mass evacuations took place as flames, larger rocks, and poisonous fumes began to engulf the area. Although an official death toll is unknown, it’s believed many – if not most – of Pompeii’s residents were able to escape as the city burned and crumbled around them.
In the early hours of the following morning, the volcano cone itself began to collapse under the intense heat and pressure, triggering an even deadlier second phase: pyroclastic flows and surges. Goodnight Pompeii.
Pyroclastic flows are essentially avalanches of extremely hot ash, mud, and gas that flow down the mountainside and across the countryside at over a hundred kilometres per hour. With temperatures of around 300°C by the time the ash flows hit Pompeii, everything and everyone caught in the direct path would have died pretty immediately of heat shock. At least it was quick.
After about 18 hours, the eruption was over, but the landscape around Vesuvius had been dramatically altered, as a blanket of ash up to six meters deep smothered all evidence of life and civilization for miles around. It even added almost two kilometres of land to the coastline, and suddenly Pompeii was a seaside town no more.
Excavation and the remains of Pompeii
Since systematic excavations of Pompeii’s ruins began in earnest in the 19th century, a 49-hectare area has been unearthed so far, standing more or less as it did when the pyroclastic flows rolled into town. Works continue to this day, yielding an evermore rich and detailed picture of the past. And given that there’s almost an entire third of the archaeological site still unexcavated, we can only imagine what other treasures still hide below the surface waiting to be discovered. Until then, one can find the sprawling ghost town of ancient wonders already uncovered.