Pompeii: Life and Death

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Pompeii: Life and Death

It took only 19 hours, not even a full day. That was all the time it needed on August 24, 70 A. D. to bury Pompeii (Rosella Lorenzi). Mount Vesuvius, south of Pompeii and the cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae (Encarta) erupted, releasing tons of volcanic debris, pumice, ash, and sulfuric gas reaching several miles into the air (Eyewitness to History). The ensuing “firestorm” of lethal gases and red hot volcanic debris overwhelmed the neighboring communities that suffocated the residents of the cities beside Pompeii, namely Herculaneum and Stabiae (Eyewitness).

Tons of debris falling from the skies began to fill the streets (Eyewitness). The eruption of Vesuvius effectively annihilated the town (Mummy Tombs). The volcanic ash and debris rained on the town for 18 or so hours, reaching heights of 8 to 10 feet (Mummy Tombs). After the explosion and the rain of debris, the event was followed by nuee ardente, extremely hot gas that engulfed Pompeii in six deadly waves (Mummy Tombs). What happened to Pompeii and the neighboring towns? History of Pompeii Pompeii was situated in the mouth of the present-day Sarno River (Encarta).

Oscans in 600 BC , who were later conqured by the Samnites (Encarta). Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman dictator, made Pompeii into a Roman colony in the year 80 BC (Encarta). Pompeii later developed into a resort town for the enjoyment of wealthy Romans (Encarta). Romans belonging to the upper echelons of the Roman government enjoyed the pleasures of the resort town nestled in their villas surrounding the Bay of Naples (Smatch). At the beginning of the Christian period in history, Pompeii reached a population of about 20,000 people (Encarta).

Aside from the wealthy and middle class Romans who enjoyed the worldly pleasures of the city, there was a larger than usual number of slaves and freemen (Smatch). They were the ones who took care of the needs of the vacationing Romans and other travellers, tourists and others who would indulge in the pleasures that the city had to offer (Smatch). Aside from the pleasures that the city rolled out for the travellers and tourists, the city was also an important trade destination and route (Encarta).

The region’s natural resources had allowed Campania to develop its trade and raise their living standards (Minnesota State University Mankato). The shoreline surrounding the Gulf of Naples soon became the address of the country residences of members of the aristocracy of the Roman Empire (Minnesota). As the city became more wealthy, they developed their luxury service sector, enhanced their trade with other states, and enhanced their agriculture (Minnesota). It would look as if Pompeii was firmly established in the life of the Roman Empire (Minnesota).

Or was it just the window to disaster? Signs of the impending disaster The citizens of Pompeii had no idea that Vesuvius carried with it the death of the town (Professor Andrew Wadrice-Hadrill). The Romans had an extreme interest in the prediction of the future (Wadrice-Hadrill). They prided themselves in being able to tell the times that the gods were going to unleash their wrath on them, and used the signs, such as strange occurences and births, to determine these things (Wadrice- Hadrill). But even with these as references, Vesuvius still gave out no warning signs (Wadrice- Hadrill).

Even though Mount Vesuvius had once been active, the volcano remained dormant for the most part of human memory for the residents of Pompeii and the outlying communities (Minnesota). Since there was no recorded incident that the volcano was destructive, the residents didn’t realize the danger that was about to befall the town (Minnesota). The city was rocked by an earthquake on the 5th of February , AD 62 (Minnesota). The quake began as the residents heard what they describes as a prolonged, subdued roar that shook the area; nobody could tell the origin or even identify what it was (Minnesota).

Soon after, the buildings began to shake and collapse, and the people ran into the streets (Minnesota). The people ran from the towns thinking that they will be safe from the falling debris (Minnesota). But they fell into the deep cracks that the eruption opened up in the earth (Minnesota). Adding to the chaos was the flooding caused by the bursting of the town’s reservior (Minnesota). Though the quake proved fatal, it did not last long; it was followed by another quake after an hour (Minnesota). The tremors occurred throughout the rest of the day, until the evening hours (Minnesota).

Earthquakes by themselves were taken to be omens of things to come (Wadrice- Hadrill). Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that he observed the presence of giants running on the land on numerous occasions (Wadrice-Hadrill). This observation of Dio carried an ominous sign for the town, because according to the Romans, the volacanoes in the southern part of the Italian peninsula was the burial place of some rebellious giants that were defeated by the gods (Wadrice Hadrill). It was the giant’s movements that bought about these eruptions (Wadrice Hadrill). The destruction of Pompeii

After the destruction of Pompeii caused by the earthquake in AD 62, the people spent seventeen years repairing the damage wrought upon their town (Minnesota). It was their intent to make their town even more beautiful than it was before the tremor (Minnesota). As the citizens of the region rebuilt their towns, trade began once again to flourish and they became wealthy again (Minnesota). As the life of those living in Pompeii and the outlying communities unfolded, they did not have any sense of the impending catastrophe waiting to explode on their city.

The wrath of the gods The beginning of the end for Pompeii began on the 24th of August of 79AD (Minnesota). There were small upheavals of the ground, but since the tremors were so small and insignificant, hardly anyone gave them a second notice (Minnesota). Springs and other sources of drinking water for the people dried up, an ominous sign that indicated the anger of the gods (Minnesota). Other signs of the impending destruction soon followed the omens. On the 20th of August, cracks had began to appear on the surface of the land, accompanied by rumblings (Minnesota).

The calm sea of the Gulf gave way to high waves. Livestock-horses, cattle and even birds- all of them became uneasy and restless, as if they could sense the disaster about to befall the town (Minnesota). In the morning hours of August 24, 79 AD, Vesuvius detonated with such violent force (Minnesota). Mud, smoke and poisonous fumes rumbled down the mountain, sending a deluge of ash and red hot rocks on the countryside (Minnesota). Farms situated on the slopes of the erupting giant were obliterated, as well as some plantations and homes of wealthy Romans (Minnesota).

Acrid fumes that came with the volcanic debris further contributed to the chaos that reigned during the eruption (Minnesota). These fumes made the residents of Pompeii to suffer from delusions, then asphyxiated them causing to be suffocated and die (Minnesota). Others chose just to lock themselves in their rooms, while others tried to flee the anarchy with their beasts of burden (Minnesota). Some that chose to stay, thinking that the structures in the towns such as buildings and the like would support the rain of ash and debris, but would eventually be killed by the same structures they had sought refuge (Minnesota).

Others would be overcome by the stench from the gases, while others would die getting buried in the falling ash (Minnesota). And the volume of the ash that fell on the town of Pompeii was truly enormous (Smatch). Pompeii, situated about eight kilometers south from the volcano, was entombed in about 3 meters deep of ashfall (Smatch). But thicker pyroclastic deposits would destroy the towns of Herculaneum and Stabiae, buried under 20 meters of volcanic ash and debris (Smatch). Pieces of volcanic debris called tephra flew to around 70 miles of the site, and other debris were found hundreds of miles farther out (Smatch).

Even some in Rome claimed to have seen the column of smoke from the eruption, and even heard the rumblings from the volcano (Smatch). Modern day scientists have estimated the volume of the pyroclastic debris that was ejected from Vesuvius to be four cubic kilomters (Smatch). Among the dead in the destruction of Pompeii was Pliny the Elder, author of the book Natural History (Smatch). Pliny the Elder had been given the command of the resort town as a gift (Smatch). He died trying to rescue the people caught in the eruption of the volcano, as the account of his nephew, Pliny the Younger, would bear out (Smatch).

Lines of communication to the stricken town had been cut, but there was evidence of some rescue attempts made (Smatch). Imprints of Roman sandals were engraved on the top ashfall layers testifies that there were rescue attempts, theoritically attributed to the Roman garrisons that had survived the eruption (Smatch). The fleet of the Roman Empire stationed at Misenum had been dispatched to Pompeii by Pliny the Elder to assist in the evacuation efforts at Pompeii and the surrounding areas (Awesome Stories).

The elder Pliny, who commanded the fleet, sent the ships for the rescue effort while he personally directed efforts at Stabiae (Awesome Stories). This is where he met his death on August 24, falling to a heart attack (Awesome Stories). All in all, the death toll of the eruption of Vesuvius, was a staggering 16,000 people, including 2,000 in Pompeii (Awesome Stories). Uncovering the past Pompeii had lain silent under the debris for at least 1500 years (Encarta). In 1748, efforts were undertaken to discover the anicient community, entombed under 3 meters of ash, frozen in limbo in the acount of Pliny the Younger (Lorenzi).

German archaelogist Johann Joachim Winkelmann imparted the importance of the discoveries to the world (Encarta). What was remarkable about the discoveries of the remains of Pompeii was the degree of preservation of artifacts in the ruins (Encarta). The ash fall that engulfed the town basically produced an envelope around the town, sealing the town from the decay of the elements, shielding the artifacts, structures, buildings, temples, shops, baths and houses (Encarta).

Some of the discoveries in the town included the remains of the 2000 people believed to be left in the rescue efforts, including Roman gladiators that were left tied to stop them form escaping or killing themselves (Encarta). The ashes, that were mixed with rainfall, had remained on the bodies of the people, forming molds around the remains after the bodies had turned to dust (Encarta). These hollow spaces were filled out and were molded around the bodies of those killed in the eruption (Encarta). These molds were preserved and put on display at the Porta Marina Museum (Encarta).

These were formed by the air space left over when the human remains of the victims turned to ash, and the excavators poured in liquid plaster into the air spaces, since the air spaces left an imprint of the body that was encapsulated in the ash (Mummy Tombs). These “plaster mummies” gave an image of the debacle that befell Pompeii and the surrounding areas (Mummy Tombs). Aside from the remains that framed the tragedy of the people in Pompeii, the ruins gave a striking and vivid insight into the daily life of the Romans in the day (Eyewitness).

As many of the residents of Pompeii had escaped the tragedy, they carried with them anything that was readily movable (Encarta). After the eruption, these residents came back and dug tunnels through the ash around the houses and the structures in the town, removing even slabs of marble on the pillars and walls (Encarta). Save for these things, what was left of the town, some of the wall paintings and the frescos left in the city have been taken from the site and housed in the National Museum located in Naples (Encarta).

If pieced together, the structures, buildings and what was left of the movable items gave students of history a thorough and complete picture of the daily life in an Italian city in the provinces of the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD (Encarta). The structures that remained standing gave historians valuable information on the study of the architectural designs of the Romans (Encarta). These buildings and other standing structures gave a framework of the transition of a Greek style of building to the methods that the Romans used in building their edifices (Encarta).

Many people assumed, as discused earlier in the paper, that the people in Pompeii had been killed by suffocation (Lorenzi). But research focusing on the fractures and the position of the bodies of the victims suggest another horrific way of death for them (Lorenzi). Research on the bodies in Pompeii suggest that they may have been killed almost instantly from the “thermal surges” that roared down the beach area with such velocity that it covered the distance of seven miles all the way to the coast in just about four minutes (Lorenzi). This occurred in the second and possibly third phases of the eruption (Smatch).

The first part of the eruption included the primary ejection of the volcano of several meters of what is called “inflated pumice” on the town (Smatch). Inflated pumice are glass-like fragments expanded by the gases and volcanic steam (Smatch). The second and third waves of the eruption happened either when the vent of the volcano widened or the volatility level of the material had diminshed (Smatch). At this time, the plume of the cloud, 33 kilometers high, imploded and the material it carried rushed down the slopes with newly acquired hot gases and pyroclastic materials (Smatch).

Searing surges, some as hot as 500 degrees centigrade, swooped over the towns (Smatch). These surges literally flattened everything surrounding the volcano and its neighboring areas, killing off evertything that ran against its path- humans, livestock and plant life (Smatch). The town of Herculaneum, though to be buried under the layers by lehars or mudflows coming from the volcano after an eruption, was in reality entombed by these pyroclastic flows (Smatch). The primary head of the flow covered the distance from the summit to the town in just under four minutes, a distance of 6 kilometers (Smatch).

The third phase of the eruption began the encapsulation of the entire area with a light and finer area of a thick layer of volcanic ash, known as tuff (Smatch). Excavation of the site The fate of Pompeii had lingered around for many centuries, but no serious undertaking had been done to excavate the ruins (Dr. Salvatore Ciro Nappo). But the exploration and discovery of Pompeii began in earnest in an area called “Civita” in the year 1748 (Ciro Nappo). In the first stage of the of the work, the main goal was the discovery of items of art for the private art trove of Charles III, who reigned from 1759 to 1788 (Ciro Nappo).

These artifacts were removed from the site and hauled off to Naples, where they are presently housed in the National Museum (Ciro Nappo). Other paintings and art works from the site were either lost or stripped from their placings on the walls and then framed (Ciro Nappo). Still other items were lost due to irreparability or to damage (Ciro Nappo). After the ransacking of the site, structures such as the Villa de Cicerone and the Villa di Giulia Felice were the next targets, but some scholars, such as the German Winckelmann, strongly countered the move, as they had done against the previous decimation (Ciro Nappo).

Because of the pressure they bought to bear against the initiative, the policy was put to a halt in some ways, although the wall paintings were still being stripped (Ciro Nappo). By the turn of the century, twin areas had been unearthed: the Quartiere dei Teatri and the Via delle Tombbe and the Villa di Diomede (Ciro Nappo). Karl Weber and Francisco La Vega were the archaelogists with the most involvement in this part of the excavatioon (Ciro Nappo). They wrote extensive diary notes on the progress of their work and the designs of the structures that they uncovered (Ciro Nappo).

Then the territory came under the control of the French (Ciro Nappo). It was during this period in the chronology of the excavation that the methodogy used in the excavation took a new turn (Ciro Nappo). During this time, the excavation became more standardized, and itineraries were made for visits of scholars and other important people to the work site (Ciro Nappo). The French had wanted to make a systematic way for unearthing the site, progressing from the east to the wset of the dig site (Ciro Nappo).

At one point of their work on the site, they had in their employ as many as 1500 laborers, resulting in a large scale excavation of the buried town, as the Foro, the Casa di Pansa, Casa di Sallustio and the Casa del Chrirurgo were all unearthed (Ciro Nappo). In 1863, Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the Pompeii excavations from 1863 to 1875 (Ciro Nappo). Fiorelli imposed a new method for the direction of the excavation work. Instead of the current method of unearthing the streets as the first step in the work, Fiorelli directed that the work begin from the top going down to the streets of the town (Ciro Nappo).

What he wanted to do was enforce a new system of preserving the artifacts that were discovered as the group worked its way down to the streets of the town (Ciro Nappo). With the information accumulated in the excavation, the data could be utilized in the restoration and rebuilding of the structures as well as their interiors (Ciro Nappo). Fiorelli also devised the plans to make use of the plaster molds to restore the forms of the plant life and the human remains that had been enveloped in the downfall of the volcanic ash (Ciro Nappo).

These plaster mummies, as earlier discussed, were formed as the bodies of the victims underwent declension, or turned into dust after centuries of being trapped in the ash (Mummy Tombs). The “ holes”, as they were termed, were filled by plaster, allowing the molds to render the forms of the bodies entombed in the ash (Mummy Tombs). The plaster casts of the bodies were discovered in several areas of the excavation site, among them the Garden of the Fugitives, the Stabian Thermal Baths, the Horrea and the Forum, and the Macellum (Mummy Tombs).

At present, at least 44 of the town’s 66 hectares have been uncovered, and the remaining 22 hectares of the town has been determined off limits to excavation (Ciro Nappo). This was decided upon as to preserve this area for the future generations to discover (Ciro Nappo). To date, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is still ranked as among the most lethal volcanic incidents in history (Awesome Stories). Vesuvius is a graphic reminder of how virulent and dangerous volcanoes can be (Christopher Joyce).


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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