Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius
Home to nearly 5,000 of the wealthiest Romans, Herculaneum was a sumptuous city by the sea. The Villa of Papyri, discovered by accident in the 18th century, towered above the town and offered a panoramic view of Mount Vesuvius and the bay. Herculaneum’s most affluent visitors would bathe in the public pools and delight in the majestic Greek architecture, expansive, richly painted frescoes, and incomparable library of resources. On the morning of August 24th, when the initial phase of Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic eruption commenced, Herculaneum was the first to see it.
Archaeological evidence suggests that most residents of Herculaneum were unsure of where to go during the composite volcano eruption. Many hid in their homes, under staircases and furniture, praying the eruption would pass them over. Looters scrambled to snatch up precious gemstones and artifacts in the panic. Many people fled to the streets in an effort to leave the city. Others, paralyzed with fear, stared in horror as a column of volcanic ash and steam rose from Mount Vesuvius and shook the ground beneath their feet.
By mid-afternoon, the volcanic cloud was so thick and heavy in the sky not even the sun could penetrate it. Darkness enveloped Herculaneum. Around midnight, a burning storm of ask and lethal volcanic gas crashed down on the city. Most of the victims were cremated on the spot, while others had their flesh burned from their bones and their skeletal remains were buried in 5 feet of volcanic eruption material that archaeologists wouldn’t uncover until the 1980’s.
A composite volcano, like Mount Vesuvius, undergoes different phases of eruption. Pliny the Younger, one of the few survivors of the 79 CE composite volcano eruption, described the blast as a “pine tree shaped" cloud of ash and volcanic gas. For this reason, the style of volcanic eruption that Mount Vesuvius became famous for was termed a Plinian eruption—recognized by its pine tree shaped column of volcanic ash and steam, and its downpour of primarily pumice, ash, and poisonous gas.