Ancient Pompeii – Great Expectations
Lost or abandoned cities like ancient Pompeii, once reintroduced to the modern world, illuminate how and where our ancestors chose to live. Ancient Roman cities, like ancient Pompeii and her sister city Herculaneum, were literally stopped dead in their tracks, frozen in a moment of everyday life in the first century. Pompeii is situated 7 miles (11 km) southeast of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum is located 4 miles (7 km) west of the peak. On August 24, A.D. 79, a volcanic eruption destroyed the thriving twin cities, burying and fossilizing thousands of their citizens in less than twenty-four hours.
Ancient Pompeii was a bustling industrial center, market town, and harbor. The character of this city was displayed in her shops, taverns, and brothels. When not tending to their well-cultivated gardens, the citizens visited temples, bath houses, a gymnasium, two theatres, or amphitheatre. In comparison, Herculaneum was a popular resort for wealthy Romans, such as Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The villas were adorned with marble and bronze statues. Herculaneum was a place of leisure where its rich, educated inhabitants would pass their time in scholarly pursuits. Dr. Charles Pellegrino, acclaimed expert in the areas of paleogenetics, forensic physics, and entomology, suggested that “the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum enjoyed “modern” amenities such as central heating, hot and cold running water—and a standard of living and life expectancy that would not be achieved again until the 1950s.”
Ancient Pompeii – The Unexpected
Did the Vesuvius’ eruption come without warning? On February 5, A.D. 62, an earthquake severely damaged buildings in Herculaneum as well as Pompeii -- which was very close to the epicenter. Pompeii’s Forum crumbled and the Temple of Apollo and the Basilica caved in. The emperor, Vespasian, saw to the rebuilding of the Temple of the Mater Deum (the great Mother of Gods) in Herculaneum, while offering no resources to a shattered Pompeii. Geologists now regard the earthquake as Mount Vesuvius’ “dress rehearsal” for the catastrophe that would occur seventeen years later.
As early as ten o’clock on that fateful August morning, a plug of pressured lava blew skyward. No one expected that Mount Vesuvius would spew forth fire twenty miles into the sky, revealing a gigantic umbrella pine-shaped cloud. The inverted “mushroom cloud” produced a 24-megaton eruption -- one thousand times more powerful than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. As the deep-Earth magma frothed and cooled, it shot “sponge stone” (pumice) skyward at a velocity nearly twice the speed of sound.
The eyewitness accounts of the final hours are recorded in a letter written by Pliny the Younger to the historian Cornelius Tacitus. The commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum, Pliny the Elder, would provide his nephew (the Younger) with vivid accounts of the desolation. Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson, estimates the fallout in Pompeii reached the height of man’s waist by four o’clock that afternoon. Unable to safely approach Herculaneum, the fleet commander dictated notes from Stabiae (8 km south of Pompeii). “The fallout is rising toward 2 meters (7 ft), and it will soon be a story deep.”
For nearly eleven hours the volcano thrust a column of pumice twelve miles into the stratosphere. Around midnight the column collapsed, sending the first surge of four avalanches of superheated gases, pumice, and rocks blasting through Herculaneum. Not until the fourth avalanche the next morning did the suffocating surge reach Pompeii. The Latin poet Statius (45–96 A.D.) summarized the horror and grief, “Will future centuries, when new seed will have covered over the waste, believe that entire cities and their inhabitants lie under their feet, and that the fields of their ancestors were drowned in a sea of flames?”
Ancient Pompeii – The Unearthed
The burial of these two Vesuvian cities preserved an intact scene which would remain hidden for centuries. In the 18th century, systematic excavation of ancient Pompeii began by the order of King Charles II, King of the Two Sicilies. The mummified city of Pompeii remained as it was at the time of the eruption. Artwork and buildings were preserved. Beneath a collapsed roof were a skeleton’s upstretched arms, someone -- possibly the very man whose bones were displayed -- scratched a line of graffiti into a frescoed wall: “Nothing in the world can last forever.” The material remains of a society -- tombs, temples, and even towers -- left buried beneath the dust. In the dust, life is found (Psalm 90:2–3).