By Robert Horvat
Pompeii and Herculaneum are Roman cities from late antiquity that don’t need any introduction. There has been so much said about them that we can’t possibly add anything new to the discussion. When the majestic Mount Vesuvius decided to erupt on 24th August 79 CE, it sent shock waves throughout the region of the devastation it wreaked for the people of the small cities underneath its shadow. It seemed that the Romans either thought Vesuvius was extinct or that no one had ever suspected that the mountain was, in fact, a volcano. So when it violently blew its top, unprecedented chaos and the scrabble to evacuate ensued. Its violent eruption spewed a thick layer of pumice and ash covering Pompeii in five metres of volcanic matter. Herculaneum, which lay to the west of the volcano, suffered an equally disturbing fate. Whilst it escaped the fallout of ash, because of the wind direction blowing southeast to Pompeii, it was instead mainly overcome by streaming flows of mud-lava, to the depths of up to fifteen to twenty metres deep.
We have a wonderful record of what happened mainly from the account of two letters addressed to Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus from Pliny the Younger. Both Pliny the Younger and Elder (his uncle) were witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius. The Younger’s account recalls the violent destruction of the volcano with its “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames.” In the letters is also a description how “you could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of the infants and the shouting of the men.” A majority of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents did escape the eruption, but unfortunately some 2,000 did not, dying from effects of raining lava and rock and poisonous ash and fumes.
This photographic panorama shows in vivid detail the ghostly remains of Herculaneum.
One of the unlucky ones to die in the disaster was Pliny the Elder. He had originally sailed from Misenium to help the citizens of Pompeii, however in a last-ditch heroic gesture likely died of suffocation. His body was somehow retrieved unlike most of the others who were buried amongst the mountain of ash and lava. Selfishly for our posterity, a record and a reminder of what took place is ghoulishly visible in the ‘moulds’ made of these victims. This was achieved through a technique used in the archeological digs of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where plaster of Paris was poured in any void found by excavators. Once the surrounding ash was removed it exposed the shape of human or animal figures. These voids would come to represent the remains of victims in the position that they died.
In the aftermath almost everything in these two cities was preserved beneath the ash and tufa, intact with very little damage of remarkable structures, objects and victims. A call to the Emperor Tacitus yielded help for the displaced of the city but no real attempt was ever made to rebuild the cities. Some people and looters returned in time to dig in the cooling ash; however it wouldn’t be until the middle of the eighteenth century before Pompeii and to a lesser extent Herculaneum were first truly excavated.
Although the remains of the victims of Pompeii decayed centuries ago, their eerie forms are still visible in plaster casts, formed when the ash hardened around their corpses.
Today, both cities can tell us more about Roman life in 79 AD than any other great Roman cities or towns. Herculaneum, for instance, was once a prosperous town and harbor in the area surrounding the Bay of Naples. It was made up of amazing villas and fine houses for the rich and famous. Unfortunately, it is far less extensively excavated, because it sits today beneath a busy modern city and its ground is so much more compacted than Pompeii due to the dense volcanic matter that littered the site.
Though it is in Pompeii, which has been excavated almost in its entirety, that our imagination can truly run wild trying to envisage its busy, noisy and smelly atmosphere. From the evidence of the site itself, you can tell that the houses and business establishments would have opened right on the street. Many of the spacious and well-made homes still show the wonderful wall paintings and mosaics of the period. We have also evidence of graffiti, a burgeoning sex industry and political notices and posters for gladiator fights. Its many temples also indicate to us that it was likely a very important religious centre. Though the most impressive structures of Pompeii are arguably its public baths, stone theatres and amphitheatres. It is a miracle that these structures, especially many of the poorer quality buildings that were erected in and around that period, meant to last for only a few decades, are still standing today eerily in what often looks like a ghost town.