The eruption of Mount Vesuvius: the great catastrophe

We have memory of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius of 79 a.d. thanks to the tales of famous men who describe with meticulosity all what happened to their friends and families during the days of the catastrophe.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius: catastrophe seen by Pliny the elder

We have an exceptional document of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.d., the two letters that Pliny the younger, who lived the event, sent to the historian Tacitus where he wrote about the events of those terrible days, describing in particular the death of his uncle, the famous Pliny the elder, the great naturalist, precisely because of the rash that the scientist would not lose, and that cost him his life.

The first letter of Pliny tells about the death of his uncle who lived in Miseno – near the modern Pozzuoli – and who commanded the imperial fleet. Miseno is not near Pompeii: it is on the other side of the Gulf of Naples, but on that morning the mushroom of smoke that rose ominously from Mount Vesuvius was well evident. Pliny decided therefore to leave, initially in order to see closer what was happening, but then also pushed by the will to give aid to some friends who were in Stabiae (the actual Castellamare) and to the population. Once arrived by a great ship in Stabiae, it was clear that it was not an easy situation: an incessant rain of lapilli and ash – the same one which covered Pompeii – tormented and scared the inhabitants, earthquakes shocked the houses and the cloud of smoke and ash was crossed by lightning bolts, fire and outbreaks.

“Frattanto dal monte Vesuvio in parecchi punti risplendevano larghissime fiamme e vasti incendi, il cui chiarore e la cui luce erano resi più vivi dalla luce notturna.”

Meanwhile the air became unbreathable and Pliny, who understood the danger of the sea, arrived to the shore and there he died suffocated because of the fumes.

The scene described by Pliny the younger who was informed by one of the witnesses, is terrifying: no one could imagine such a disaster: never before Mount Vesuvius had erupted, the last time was dated bask to before the birth of the city.

The direct testimony of Pliny the younger

In a second letter Pliny tells about his own experience, prayed by the curiosity of Tacit. It didn’t conclude in a tragical way, but it was however frightful. The pine shaped cloud raised from the volcano and soon earthquakes came to hit also the far Miseno, where the young man was with his mother, after the departure of his uncle. The fear hit everyone, and all of them exited from their house and tried the escape. The sea had been withdrawn, leaving on the arena fishes and algae while the ash rain incessantly fell. Indeed alarming this dark night! But for Pliny the younger and his mother everything ended well. When the sun rose, in a big white haze, all it went to an end, and in Miseno things got solved. Not the same in Pompeii, where at least 2,000 of the 10,000 inhabitants of the area died, and the sudden and terrible death is witnessed by the terrible casts that can be seen today at the show at the Amphitheatre.

“Cadeva già della cenere, ma ancora non fitta. Mi volgo, una densa caligine ci sovrasta alle spalle e simile a un torrente che si rovesciasse sul terreno, mi incalzava. (…). Scese la notte, non come quando non c’è luna o il cielo è nuvoloso, ma come quando ci si trova in un locale chiuso a lumi spenti.”

A terrible tragedy, which erased a rich and happy town, a city that today is back and that reminds us of the drama lived by tens of thousands of people two thousand years ago.







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