Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Destruction of Pompeii

On the eastern margin of the Bay of Naples, where it serves as a striking background to the city of that name, stands the renowned Vesuvius, the most celebrated volcano in the world. During many centuries before the Christian era it had been a dead and silent mountain. Throughout the earlier period pf Roman history the people of Campania treated it with the contempt of ignorance, planting their vineyards on its fertile slopes and building their towns and villages around its base. Under the shadow of the silent mountain armies met and fought, and its crater was made the fort and lurking-place of Spartacus and his party of gladiators. But the time was at hand in which a more terrible enemy than a band of vengeful rebels was to emerge from that threatening cavity.

The sleeping giant first showed signs of waking from his long slumber in 63 A.D., when earthquake convulsions shook the surrounding lands. These tremblings of the earth continued at intervals for sixteen years, doing much damage. At length, on the 24th of August of the year 79, came the culminating event. With a tremendous and terrible explosion the whole top of the mountain was torn out, and vast clouds of steam and volcanic ashes were hurled high into the air, lit into lurid light by the crimson gleams of the boiling lava below.

The scene was a frightful one. The vast, tree-like cloud, kindled throughout its length by almost incessant flashes of lightning; the fiery glare that gleamed upward from the glowing lava; the total darkness that overspread the surrounding country as the dense mass of volcanic dust floated outward, a darkness only relieved by the glare that attended each new explosion, formed a spectacle of terror to make the stoutest heart quail, and to fill the weak and ignorant with dread of a final overthrow of the earth and its inhabitants.

The elder Pliny, the famous naturalist, was then in command of a fleet at Misenum, in the vicinity. Led by his scientific interest, he approached the volcano to examine the eruption more closely, and fell a victim to the falling ashes or the choking fumes of sulphur that filled the air. His nephew, Pliny the younger, then only a boy of eighteen, has given a lucid account of what took place, in letters to the historian Tacitus. After describing the journey and death of his uncle, he goes on to speak of the violent earthquakes that shook the ground during the night. He continues with the story of the next day:

"Though it was now morning, the light was exceedingly faint and languid; the buildings all around us tottered, and though we stood upon open ground, yet, as the place was narrow and confined, there was no remaining there without certain and great danger; we therefore resolved to leave the town. The people followed us in the utmost consternation, and, as to a mind distracted with terror every suggestion seems more prudent than its own, pressed in great crowds about us in our way out.

"Being got at a convenient distance from the houses, we stood still, in the midst of a most dangerous and dreadful scene. The chariots which we had ordered to be drawn out were so agitated backward and forward, though upon the most level ground, that we could not keep them steady, even by supporting them with large stones. The sea seemed to roll back upon itself, and to be driven from its banks by the convulsive motion of the earth; it is certain, at least, that the shore was considerably enlarged, and several sea-animals were left upon it. At the other side a black and dreadful cloud, bursting with an igneous serpentine vapor, darted out a long train of fire, resembling flashes of lightning, but much larger. . . .

"Soon afterwards the cloud seemed to descend and cover the whole ocean, as indeed it entirely hid the island of Capreæ and the promontory of Misenum. My mother strongly conjured me to make my escape at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily do; as for herself, she said, her age and corpulence rendered all attempts of that sort impossible. However, she would willingly meet death if she could have the satisfaction of seeing that she was not the occasion of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and, taking her by the hand, I led her on; she complied with great reluctance, and not without many reproaches to herself for retarding my flight.

"The ashes now began to fall on us, though in no great quantity. I turned my head, and observed behind us a thick smoke, which came rolling after us like a torrent. I proposed, while we yet had any light, to turn out of the high-road, lest she should be pressed to death in the dark by the crowd that followed us. We had scarce stepped out of the path when darkness overspread us, not like that of a cloudy night or when there is no moon, but of a room when it is shut up and all the lights extinct. Nothing then was to be heard but the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the cries of men, some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and only distinguishing each other by their voices; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family, some wishing to die from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part imagining that the last and eternal night was come, which was to destroy the gods and the world together.

Among these were some who augmented the real terrors by imaginary ones, and made the frightened multitude falsely believe that Misenum was in flames. At length a glimmering light appeared, which we imagined to be rather the forerunner of an approaching burst of flames, as in truth it was, than the return of day. However, the fire fell at a distance from us; then again we were immersed in thick darkness, and a heavy shower of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap. I might boast that during all this scene of horror not a sigh or expression of fear escaped from me, had not my support been found in that miserable, though strong, consolation, that all mankind were involved in the same calamity, and that I imagined I was perishing with the world itself.

"At last this dreadful darkness was dissipated by degrees, like a cloud of smoke; the real day returned, and even the sun appeared, though very faintly, and as when an eclipse is coming on. Every object that presented itself to our eyes seemed changed, being covered over with white ashes, as with a deep snow."

This graphic story repeats the experience of thousands on that fatal occasion, in which great numbers perished, while many lost their all. Villas of wealthy Romans were numerous in the vicinity of the volcano, while among the several towns which surrounded it three were utterly destroyed,—Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiæ. Of these much the most famous is Pompeii, which, being buried in ashes, has proved far easier of exploration than Herculaneum, which was overwhelmed with torrents of mud, caused by heavy rains on the volcanic ash.

Pompeii was an old town, built more than six hundred years before, and occupied at the time of its destruction by the aristocracy of Rome. Triumphal arches were erected there in honor of Caligula and Nero, who probably honored it by visits. It possessed costly temples, handsome theatres and other public buildings, luxurious residences, and all the ostentatious magnificence arising from the wealth of the proud patricians of Rome.

What Pompeii was in its best days we are not now able to estimate. It was essentially, in its architecture, a Greek city, rich and artistic, gay and luxurious. But on February 5, 63 A.D., came the first of the long series of earthquakes, and when it ended nearly all of old Pompeii was leveled with the ground. It was not yet a lost city, but was a thoroughly ruined one. In the years that followed it was rapidly rebuilt, Roman architecture and decoration, of often tawdry and inferior character, replacing the chaste and artistic Greek. Once more the city became a centre of gayety, ostentation, and licentiousness, when, in 79 A.D., the eruption of Vesuvius came, and the overwhelming storm of ashes came down like a thick-descending fall of snow on the doomed city.

The description given by Pliny relates to a less endangered point. Upon Pompeii the ashes settled down in seemingly unending volumes, continuing for three days, during which all was enveloped in darkness and gloom. The citizens fled in terror, such as were able to, through many perished and were buried deep in their ruined homes. On the forth day the sun began to reappear, as if shining through a fog, and the bolder fugitives returned in search of their lost property.

What they saw must have been frightfully disheartening. Where the busy city had stood was now a level plain of white ashes, so deep that not a house-top could be seen, and only the upper walls of the great theatre and the amphitheatre were visible. Digging into the fleecy ashes, many of them recovered articles of value, while thieves also may have reaped a rich harvest. The emperor Titus even undertook to clear and rebuild the city, but soon abandoned the task as too costly a one, and for many centuries afterwards Pompeii remained buried in mud and ashes, lost to the world, its site forgotten, and the forms of many of its old inhabitants preserved intact in the bed of ashes in which they had perished.

It was only in 1748 that its site was recognized, and only since 1860 has there been a systematic effort to dig the old city out of its grave. At present nearly one-half—the most important half—of Pompeii has been laid bare, and we are able to see for ourselves how the Romans lived. The narrow streets, fourteen to twenty-four feet wide, are well paved with blocks of lava, which are out into deep ruts by the wheels of chariots that rolled over them two thousand years ago. On each side rise the walls of houses, two, and sometimes three, stories in height, and some of them richly painted and adorned, while walls and columns are brightly painted in red, blue, and yellow, which must have given the old city a gay and festive hue.



The ornaments, articles of furniture, and domestic utensils found in these houses go far to teach us the modes of life in Roman times, and reveal to us that the Romans possessed many comforts and conveniences for which we had not given them credit. Even the forms of the inhabitants have in many cases been recovered. Though these forms have long vanished, the hollows made by their bodies in the hardened ashes in which they lay and slowly decayed have remained unchanged, and by pouring liquid plaster of Paris into these cavities perfect casts have been obtained, showing the exact shape of face and body, and even every fold of the clothes of these victims of Vesuvius eighteen hundred years ago. They are not altogether pleasant to see, for they express the agony of those caught in the swift descending death of the falling volcanic shroud, but as tenants of an archæological museum they stand unrivalled in lifelike fidelity.

Herculaneum, which was buried to a depth of from forty to one hundred feet, and with wet material which has grown much harder than the ashes of Pompeii, has been but little explored. It was the larger and more important city of the two, while none of its treasures could have been recovered by their owners. The art relics found there far exceed in interest and value those of Pompeii, but the work is so difficult that as yet very little has been done in the task of restoring this "dead city of Campania" to the light of the modern day.