On This Date in History: Italy is in some regard the cradle of Western Civilization, though the roots of modern Western culture can be traced to many regions around the Mediterreanean Sea. Mixed in with the history of Italy and the Roman Empire are episodes of tragedy that were largely man-made. However, some disasters were simply human tragedy. The Bay of Naples in Southern Italy has a beautiful location for a town in the Campania region of the Napoli Province at the mouth of the Sarno River at the base of a giant mountain. What could be better than a port near a river that gave access to inland markets on a bay that is a gateway to the rest of the world? Sometimes a hidden menace can spoil what appears to be prime real estate.
In the early part of the 1st Century, earthquakes in the region were quite common and accepted as just a way of life. Most were merely a nuisance but in 62 AD there was a violent tembler,even by Italian standards. In 64 AD, the Roman Emperor Nero was in Naples performing when another major earthquake struck. While life went on, it took quite a bit of time for the town to recover. In 79 AD, the town was still recovering from the earthquake in 62 AD and, to a lesser extent, the one in 64 AD. Around that time, more earthquakes rattled the area but this time something strange happened. The wells and springs all dried up. By the time August rolled around, the earth had cracked. In late August, the sea became rather turbulent and the animals in the area began to behave in a very strange manner. The residents of the town, probably more appropriately called a city, were somewhat alarmed but not so much that they thought to leave their home at the base of Mount Vesuvius. Had they known what the mountain was telling them, they most likely would have left their city of Pompeii because on this date in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted violently.
This single event is responsible for making Mt. Vesuvius one of the more well known volcanoes in the world. However, it’s not so much for the event as to what was discovered 1700 years later. In fact, the modern world may have been ignorant to the great eruption in 79 AD had it not been for the writing of a young man known as Pliny the Younger. He was the nephew of a Roman offiical who had charge of the Roman Navy in the region. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was not only a military and political leader, but he was also a naturalist. He also raised his nephew. As a naturalist, Pliny the Elder habitually recorded many scientific observations and his nephew followed in his uncle’s footsteps. Pliny the Younger wrote to the Roman historian Tacitus about the events of August 24, 79 AD. He lived with his uncle about 18 miles from Pompeii in the town of Misenum where the fleet was stationed. At one in the afternoon, the Younger’s mother urged his uncle to look at the strange cloud rising from a distant mountain. He said that it ”was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches.”
The Elder thought he’d take a small boat out to make an observation and asked the Younger if he’d like to come along but the young man was too busy with his studies. Before the Elder could leave on his scientific excursion, he received a note from a relative that said her home at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius was in great danger and that there was no escape except by sea. The Elder took off his scientific hat and took on the role of Roman citizen and Prefect and ordered his fleet to sea. As he neared the city, his ships were pelted by falling stone and pumice as well as burning cinders. Though his ships were in grave danger, he ordered them to shore. When his pilot advised that they turn back, Pliny the Elder responded by saying, “Fortune favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is!”
Pliny the Elder died that day in the firestorm. Mt. Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii under 10 feet of ash while the neighboring town of Herculaneum found itself 75 feet below the surface. The eruption happened so suddenly that thousands of people died, many of whom were entombed as they attempted to flee. Mt. Vesuvius erupted about every 100 years thereafter until about 1037 when the volcano went silent for about six centuries. It awakened from its slumber in 1631 resulting in the deaths of about 4000 people. As I said in the beginning, volcano notwithstanding, it was a great place for a city so the rebuilding began. While the city continued its rebirth over a century later, excavations uncovered the ancient city of Pompeii beginning on March 23, 1748. The excavation work continues today.
The observational recordings of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption by Pliny the Younger , preserved by Tacitus, resulted in the earliest detailed description of a volcanic eruption in human history. That in itself makes the volcano noteworthy. But, the discovery of the buried city is what really put the mountain and the city on the map as the ash preserved the city in a virtual snapshot of time. From the ruins, it has been determined how Romans in the 1st century lived and they provide some clue as to how the people of Pompeii died. Not only were the buildings and examples of advanced Roman engineering maintained as a model for archaeologists and anthropologists to study, but human remains were suprisingly left behind. Stone like figures that appeared to be sculptures of people and animals in the throws of death were found. The descriptive skill of Pliny the Younger and the heroic effort of his uncle led to the characterization of eruptions similar to that of Vesuvius as “Plinian.” A typical Plinian eruption features the ejection of tephra into the atmosphere in a cloud that resembles a mushroom cloud, or as the Younger described it, a pine tree. In 79 AD, it is speculated that the cloud rose to about 66,000 feet and pumice and ash rained on the countryside for 18 hours. Under the weight of the ash buildings collapsed and then a blast of gasses and extreme heat engulfed the city. Some speculation as to the ultimate demise of those who could not escape by sea centers around the excessive heat.
Now, Mt. Vesuvius has erupted about 50 times since that fateful day in 79 AD yet, as I’ve said, its a great place for a city and today there are nearly 3 million inhabitants of the region at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. It has got to be one of the most vulnerable and dangerous of all the world’s metropolises. The last time it erupted was right in the middle of World War II. The Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 1944 came just as the allies were attempting to take control of Italy from Mussolini and Hitler and, at times, the erupting volcano was more of an enemy than the facist soldiers. Since 1944, the volcano has remained silent yet is still considered as an active volcano. One day it will awaken again. If it does, then you can have a birds-eye view from the webcams now situated on and around Mt. Vesuvius.
Weather Bottom Line: I told you that I thought that we’d turned the corner on the excessive heat and it would seem that we’re getting a little more evidence that there is a seasonal change coming. Now, I’m not saying that we won’t get to 90 degrees again this year, but I am saying that the upper 90s are probably gone as well as the extreme humidity. When we do get to 90, which we may this weekend, it won’t be so dog gone humid. As it stands, we have a cold front coming through on Wednesday afternoon or evening followed by a secondary push of Canadian air. That means that the latter part of the week we may see highs only in the low to mid 80s as we enjoy the front side of the Canadian high pressure system dropping down. Our mornings will be in the mid to upper 50′s. When the high drifts off to the east for the weekend, then we get a return flow and warm back up. It’s a nice break and an indication that the times they are a changin’.