On August 24th 79AD Vesuvius erupted. Pompeii, which by then had been an established town for well over 600 years, bore the full force of not lava, but pyroclastic flows.
During my visit to the ancient Roman town; supposedly 11,000 inhabitants strong at the time of the eruption, a common myth was dispelled. I had always thought that Pompeii’s men, women and even dogs had died solely due to the metres of ash that covered them for centuries.
Part of me always wondered why so many perished. Could they not see the cloud approaching? Why didn’t they begin running when the first explosions started? The theory of the pyroclastic flows answers all my questions. Recent studies have shown that the majority of Pompeii’s citizens would have been killed almost instantly from the sudden surges of intense heat that rolled into the Bay of Naples without any warning. These flows – a mixture of volcanic ash and gas – moved at speeds of up to 700 kilometres an hour. Then, the ash settled.
To imagine the way in which Pompeii succumbed to its ever-present neighbour is terrifying. However the fact that this brutal act of nature managed to preserve a slice of Roman civilisation exactly as it was on that very day is also remarkable.
As I explored, these conflicting emotions washed over me: the sadness at seeing the detail in proud family homes savagely held at a single moment in time, contrasting with the fascination that we’re lucky enough to be able to examine this ancient town today.