A thriving tourist city south of ancient Rome, Pompeii lay off the coast of Italy in the shadow of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. Its most famous eruption occurred in AD 79, when it buried the city of Pompeii under a thick layer of volcanic ash. One witness wrote that dust “flooded the ground”. After the accident, two thousand people were killed in the city, and the survivors left the area.
When a group of explorers rediscovered the area in 1748, they were surprised to find that, beneath a thick layer of dust and rubble, Pompeii was largely unspoiled. The buildings, artifacts, and skeletons left over from the buried city taught us a lot about daily life in the ancient world. We told you, did a real Pompeii happen, what is the story of Pompeii and how the people died in Pompeii.
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Where is Pompeii?
Located south of modern-day Naples on Italy’s west coast, ancient Greek settlers made Pompeii part of the Hellenistic world in the eighth century BC. In the second century BC, it became a magnet for wealthy Roman vacationers enjoying the coast of Campania.
At the beginning of the first century AD, the city of Pompeii, located about 8 kilometers from Mount Vesuvius, was a thriving vacation spot for the most distinguished citizens of the Roman Empire. The city was full of elegant homes, many of which were filled with gorgeous works of art and sparkling fountains. Much of the city’s wealth came from its rich volcanic soil. The region was the center of olives, grapes, and other crops, and the richest people in Rome drank wine from Pompeii.
Scientists estimate that on the eve of the deadly eruption in AD 79, about 12,000 people lived in Pompeii and nearly as many in the surrounding area.
Of course, Mount Vesuvius didn’t form overnight. Vesuvius is part of the Campanian volcanic arc that runs along the meeting of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates on the Italian peninsula and erupted thousands of years ago. For example, around 1995 BC, an unusually violent volcanic eruption (known today as the “Avelino eruption”) hurled millions of tons of superheated lava, ash, and rock about 35 km into the sky.
The villagers living around the mountain had already learned to live with the occasional eruption. Even after the great earthquake that struck the Campania region in AD 63, people still flocked to the shores of the Gulf of Naples, and Pompeii grew more crowded every year.
16 years after this great earthquake in August or October of AD 79, a series of smaller earthquakes rocked the Pompeii area. According to the writer and eyewitness Pliny the Younger, the people there did not care about earthquakes, as earthquakes occur frequently in Campania. Then, on that momentous day, shortly after noon, Mount Vesuvius erupted again. The eruption sent a cloud of ash, rock and hot volcanic gas so high into the sky that people could see it hundreds of kilometers away.
Watching the eruption across the Gulf of Naples, Pliny the Younger likened the cloud of unusual size and appearance to a pine tree that “shoots high on a kind of trunk and then branches out”. Today, geoscientists refer to volcanic eruptions as “Plainene eruptions.”
As it cooled, this tower of rubble drifted down to the ground: first fine-grained ash, then light pumice and other bits of rock. Pliny said, “I thought I would die with the world and the world with me.” He wrote, but it wasn’t fatal yet. Most of the inhabitants of Pompeii had plenty of time to escape.
Conditions soon became much worse for those left behind in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other cities. As more and more ash fell, it clogged the air and made breathing difficult. Roofs of buildings filled with dirt and rocks began to collapse. However, some people who were still 50-60 cm below the ash line insisted on staying in the city. Then, the next morning, a “pyroclastic flow” (an explosion of superheated gas and fracturing rock at 160 kilometers per hour) flowed down the mountainside, evaporating everything and everyone in its path.
By the second day of the eruption, Pompeii was buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash. Some people returned to Pompeii to search for their missing relatives or belongings, but almost nothing was left to be found. The city, along with the neighboring town of Herculaneum and the many villas in the area, had been abandoned for centuries.
The people of Pompeii are cited as the cause of this terrible event. In the past, the population of Pompeii was very “bad” and there were brothels throughout the city. Also, homosexuality is allowed. From the past to the present, many people believed that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was a punishment for the sins committed by the people of Pompeii.
How many people died in Pompeii?
About 2,000 Pompeys died in the city, but the eruption killed up to 16,000 people in total in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other towns and villages in the region. The corpses of men, women, children and animals were frozen where they fell. Many of the bodies that were later discovered still contained valuable household items that they hoped to transport safely out of town. Some of the bodies were found with their arms emotionally wrapped around children or their other loved ones.
Later, archaeologists discovered pots of canned fruit and loaves of bread. Most of its buildings in the city were intact, and everyday objects and household items were strewn about in the streets. The crushed volcanic ash that buried Pompeii proved to be an excellent preservative.
Discovery of Pompeii after the eruption
Pompeii was mostly untouched until 1748, when a group of explorers looking for ancient artifacts arrived in Campania and began excavating. The researchers discovered that the ashes acted as a remarkable preservative: Beneath all that dust, Pompeii was almost as it was 2,000 years ago.
Many scholars note that the Pompeii excavations had an impact on the neoclassical revival in the eighteenth century. The wealthiest and most fashionable families in Europe displayed artwork and copies of objects in the ruins, and drawings of Pompeii’s buildings helped shape the architectural trends of the period. For example, wealthy English families often built “Etruscan rooms” that mimicked those found in the villas of Pompeii. Today, many preserved works of art, frescoes, and other artifacts are on display at the Antiquarium of Pompeii, located among the city’s ruins. Excavations in Pompeii are still ongoing today, and the entire area has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
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