Yesterday the news was filled with images of people being dug out from the rubble of what remained of their villages following the overnight earthquake, but August 24 might be said to be an ominous date in Italian history, as it was at noon on that date in 79 AD that Vesuvius blew:
Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy, devastating the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands.
In the time of the early Roman Empire, 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, including merchants, manufacturers, and farmers who exploited the rich soil of the region with numerous vineyards and orchards.
Herculaneum was much smaller, at about 5,000 people, and was basically a resort community favored by rich Romans, featuring as it did large grand villas and lavish Roman baths, among other attractions. Many of the smaller towns in the area were likewise primarily resort destinations.
The eruption lasted some 18 hours, showering Pompeii with ash and with pumice rock as much as three inches in diameter and prompting most residents to flee, although some 2,000 chose to hole up in cellars or stone buildings, hoping to ride it out.
A westerly wind protected Herculaneum from the initial stage of the eruption, but then a giant cloud of hot ash and gas surged down the western flank of Vesuvius, engulfing the city and burning or asphyxiating all who remained. This lethal cloud was followed by a flood of volcanic mud and rock, burying the city.
The people who remained in Pompeii were killed on the morning of August 25 when a cloud of toxic gas poured into the city, suffocating all that remained. A flow of rock and ash followed, collapsing roofs and walls and burying the dead.
The eruption was described by a 17 year-old referred to as Pliny the Younger, who wrote his observations from his keep along the Bay of Naples. Pliny wrote that the eruption lasted 18 hours, though some geologists place it at closer to 24 hours in duration.