It was late morning on August 24, 79 A.D. The lively city of Pompeii was buzzing with activity. The main street leading to the Forum was busy with carts, carriages and chariots bouncing over the large cobblestones.
On residential streets, pedestrians negotiated their way on narrow sidewalks. The sidewalks were raised because unlike Rome, Pompeii didn’t have a sophisticated sewer system and much of the wastewater found its way onto the streets. Crossing the street with produce from the market or products from the many flourishing shops around the Forum was a balancing act on the large, flat stones provided for the purpose of crossing with dry feet.
As usual, people were gathering around the many drinking wells around the city exchanging the latest news and some, without a doubt, also engaging in rumor mongering.
Nobody worried about the fact that the water to these fountains was flowing through lead pipes.
The bath houses were still busy with late morning bathers, men and women enjoying separate quarters. Their clothing neatly tucked away in the “lockers” around the bath.
Some people were lingering in the colorfully decorated common areas of the bath house.
This Tuesday morning, life was going on its usual merry ways at the many hotels (and brothels), shops and bakeries in the city.
The morning rehearsals at the Grand Theater had just concluded and the spectators were leaving the venue. It was a perfect morning.
The smaller Forum was busy too. Young men were competing in athletics, their families cheering them on. Some were standing in small groups discussing politics.
At the affluent villas of the nobel class and newly rich merchants, the morning was spent leisurely around the house.
Guests were entertained in the larger atrium, where the rainwater had been gathered in a shallow “pool” for some cooling on this warm summer morning.
The servants were busy dusting the frescos and cleaning the mosaic floors in and outside of the house.
Inhabitants and guests of the most opulent villas facing the sea, could enjoy splendid views from their elaborate terraces and gardens.
Those less fortunate could enjoy the public green spaces sprinkled around the city.
But the busiest place this morning was the Forum. It was the economic, religious and political center of the city, where municipal buildings, courts, temples and commercial activities were located around the two-story portico.
The northern end of the Forum was closed by the Capitolium, with Mount Vesuvius rising towards the sky right behind it.
An ordinary late summer day. Until … around noon, a “cloud of unusual size and shape” appeared overtop Vesuvius.
It could be seen across the city. At first, there was curiosity. But an hour later when ash started falling, people begun to panic. Many rushed towards the harbor, others started running north or south along the coast, but some 2000 people were hesitant to leave their homes. They would ride out whatever was coming and chose to take shelter in buildings and underground cellars they deemed safe. But the eruption escalated fast. Around 2 p.m. ash and white pumice was falling over the city at a rate of 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) an hour.
By 5 p.m. the sun was completely blocked and there was no light for the people still seeking shelter or running away from the city. Ash, bits of pumice and charred rocks were falling on the city. Fires were burning everywhere. Roofs started to collapse.
And then, in the morning of August 25, just before 7 a.m., a pyroclastic cloud of hot ash and toxic gas surged down on the city killing everyone who had remained in its vicinity. Not one was spared. Men, women, children and animals all perished.
The eruption buried the city under 4-6 meters (13-20 feet) of volcanic ash and pumice. Life as it had been on that late summer day in 79 A.D. was frozen in time for almost 1700 years.
Pliny the Younger, a Roman writer who managed to escape from the city in time, described the eruption in letters to his friend, which were discovered in the 16th century. The ruins of Pompeii were found only in 1748.
About 80% of the city has now been excavated and as the work progresses, we learn more about that fateful day 1938 years ago.
About 700,000 people currently live around the volcano, which last erupted in 1944.
As I am starting to “unpack” my latest travels, I wish you all a wonderful week ahead.