I visited Pompeii last month. It is a vast place; a real city depicting life as it was in Campania in AD 79. Visitors walk among the ruins of real houses; government buildings; amphitheatres; places for trading; even a brothel. You can see original mosaics; the remains of the public baths; evidence of early water systems and gardens that would have been elaborate and adorned with fountains. It is a fascinating place - for me, it provoked many thoughts of its doomed citizens. The preserved bodies of some of the victims can be seen at Pompeii (most have been transported to Naples). The figure I remember the most was a small person who seemed to be cowering in fear. What was it like for them as Vesuvius, looming above Pompeii like the formidable ruler of a kingdom, relentlessly unleashed plumes of volcanic ash onto everything below? Did they predict the severity of the danger they were facing? Did they try to get away?
We can understand something of what it was like as Vesuvius erupted on 24 August AD 79 from later accounts by Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny), who had been staying with his uncle, an admiral, in Campania. The volcano began erupting on 24th and continued for two days. People were unprepared for what was about to hit them - although if they had evacuated the area in the preceding days, as many earth tremors occurred, then the outcome could have been different. But the folk of Campania were used to tremors and so did not see it as a cause for concern. They didn't realise that the activity was different in nature. Even on the morning of August 24th, citizens were complacent - those who left had a high chance of survival, but many grossly underestimated the danger and decided to stay. It was a time of rebuilding, and people chose to stay in their own homes.
But in the afternoon, a huge cloud in the shape of a pine tree appeared and kept changing colour. Even then, it seems complacency overrode panic. Pliny's admiral uncle observed it from afar as an object of curiosity. But then came a call for help from Pompeii - inhabitants were trapped by the eruption and the only way out of danger was by sea. Ships were sent to rescue citizens but became covered with hot ash - the closer they got to Pompeii, the hotter the ash became. Unable to dock, the ships had to continue to Stabiae, four miles south of Pompeii. Once there, they could not depart again because of the strong winds and sea conditions.
Vesuvius continued to unleash its fury, violently shaking buildings. People were too scared to stay in their houses because of the risk of being buried, so they waited outside. On the morning of 25th, the cloud of soot completely blanked out the sunlight. There was still no escape by sea because of the impossible sailing conditions. Many people suffocated to death from the toxic mix of ash and sulphurous exhalations, including Pliny's admiral uncle. It was a painful way to die.
Not everyone died at Pompeii. There were survivors, who tried to recover their belongings by digging down into the debris. The true number of victims is not known - however, the number is considered to be very high. Pompeii all but disappeared from the map - people even forgot its name. During the late 1500's, two inscriptions from Pompeii were uncovered but excavation work did not begin until 1745. Today, excavation work is ongoing and new discoveries are still being uncovered.