Many people know about the city of Pompeii because of the destruction that Mt. Vesuvius rained down upon it one fateful day. The volcano erupted and sent a cloud of fire and ash down so rapidly that many people didn’t have time to escape. Then it all rapidly cooled to preserve people in their shapes and the overall condition of the town. Many of the things we know about the Roman Empire today come from discoveries in Pompeii.
1. People Knew It Was Coming
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the year 79 was devastating, but it wasn’t unexpected. For over 15 years, in fact, people were aware the volcano was getting ready to plow. Massive earthquakes shook the region and there was occasional small eruptions that could be seen. Mt. Vesuvius is one of the most dangerous types of volcanoes, a stratovolcano, so the pyroclastic flow that came when it finally erupted would be fatal to Pompeii.
2. An Eyewitness
Pliny the Younger is known for many of his writings, but he may be most famous for his letters about what happened at Pompeii. He watched the eruption as it happened and then took time to interview the survivors who had managed to flee before the fateful day. Pliny the Younger would send those letters and eyewitness accounts to a friend of his named Tacitus and at this point, it remains the only first-hand account of the eruption that is known.
3. It’s a Graveyard
Pompeii was not a small city by any means. It wasn’t the largest in the Roman Empire, but the region itself was popular as a travel destination and was one of the wealthier communities in the area. It is believed that up to 16,000 people may have been buried by the molten ash and mud that buried the city. With an estimated population in the region of 20k-25k, up to 3 out of 4 people who called Pompeii their home could have been killed.
4. It Was Abandoned
The earthquakes that happened before the fateful eruption created a lot of devastation in Pompeii. That devastation was still being rebuilt at the time of the eruption. The damage that the volcano caused, however, seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rome. There was no attempt to rebuild after the eruption subsided. No one even bothered to try moving back into the city. The only people who did return were looters who dug tunnels through the mud and ash in search of treasure.
5. A Time Machine
Nearly 20 feet of materials came down on the city of Pompeii and when researchers finally made their way to the city in the 18th century, they discovered the materials had perfectly preserved much of the city. There were still even skeletons found to be intact within the body coverings of ash and mud. With images of city life still shown as they were so long ago, ancient Rome comes alive when a visit to Pompeii happens.
What is less known is the fact that the city of Herculaneum was also buried by Mt. Vesuvius. It covered that city with 3x the materials with which it covered Pompeii.
6. It Had Happened Before
After excavating the site in the 18th century, researchers discovered something incredible: that Mt. Vesuvius had erupted at least once before in a similar way. An 1,800 BC eruption took out much of the surrounding countryside as well and Pompeii was built on some of the ruins of the previous eruption. It can still happen today as well and a similar eruption could be very devastating. More than 2 million people now call the area around Mt. Vesuvius their home.
It is believed that Mt. Vesuvius has actually erupted at least 50 times in the 17,000 years it is believed to have existed.
7. A New Word
The Romans didn’t even have a word in their language for a volcano until after Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The event was so powerful that the Roman people believed it could only be attributed to their god that was responsible for fire and metal forgery. That god was named Vulcan, which created the root word for the mountain: volcano.
To witness this amazing piece of history, more than 2.5 million people visit the ancient city of Pompeii every year. One of the best sites is the amphitheater at the city, which dates back to 80 BC. It’s the oldest stone building of its kind that exists today.
Pompeii may have ended in tragedy, but in its ashes the world has come to know the Roman people. The walled city may only be 150 acres in size, but this still makes it the largest excavation in the world today.