The Two Plinys
Dateline: Early morning, August 24, 79 AD, Misenum, Italy. Roman Naval Commander, Pliny the Elder, discusses the days affairs with his nephew, the Roman poet and administrator, Pliny the Younger. Let’s listen in.
Pliny the Younger: “Uncle. I miss the old August when it was called ‘Sextilis’”.
Pliny the Elder: “Now, Nephew. Show some respect for Augustus Caesar who renamed Sextilis. You just want to say a name which sounds like a dirty word.”
The Younger: “Those Roman rulers are sure full of themselves.”
The Elder: “Be careful, Nephew. Remember that those powerful rulers made me Naval Commander and you Administrator. Who do you think pays for all those in vogue tunics you wear each weekend while partying across the bay in Pompeii?”
The Younger: “Speaking of Pompeii, look at that large, dark cloud rising over Mount Vesuvius. Could that be a volcanic eruption?”
The Elder: “I doubt it. We had no foreshadowing of such events. Mother Nature would send us a signal before the volcano erupts.”
The Younger: “What about the constant earthquakes over the last four days?”
The Elder: “Boy, those were strange. But only if we had some warning about Mount Vesuvius.”
The two Plinys watched as the ash cloud rose 98,000 feet from Mount Vesuvius over Pompeii. Even Naval Commander Pliny could no longer deny what they were witnessing. Pliny the Elder ordered his ships to prepare for a rescue mission across the Bay of Naples to assist with evacuation of Pompeii by sea.
As he neared the coast, Pliny the Elder was met met with a thick shower of ash, hot cinders, lumps of pumice, and pieces of rock falling from the sky. In response to the helmsman’s advice to turn back, Pliny the Elder declared: “Fortune favors the brave!” The ships were lost to fire falling the sky; Pliny the Elder suddenly died from either a heart attack or stroke; and his crew escaped on land walking along the coast to safety.
We know of these events because of the eyewitness accounts and stories in letters Pliny the Younger penned to Roman historian Tacitus. Pliny the Younger noted the initial massive explosion and ash cloud with flaming fallout on Pompeii and surrounding areas. While lives certainly were lost then, the remaining residents of Pompeii could still seek to escape the area by sea or by foot even with one to two-inch superheated pieces of pumice raining down.
It was not until early the next morning, August 25, that pyroclastic surges spewed forth from Vesuvius. These rapid moving, dense and exceedingly hot masses destroyed all in their paths from the volcano to the sea. When the 570 degree F molten rock cooled, Pompeii had been leveled with a new coastline along the bay. Anything left in Pompeii, whether people or property, was lost in the pyroclastic surges.
I had been under the mistaken impression that the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD presented as a sudden and cataclysmic event. I recall photographs of ash covered and preserved victims discovered millennia later in everyday life scenes as if instantaneously struck by the volcanic eruption. Yet, those in Pompeii experienced four straight days of increasingly stronger earthquakes before the explosion on August 24. No precautions were taken. The toxic ash cloud reached almost 100,000 feet with flaming embers and rocks then instantly falling on Pompeii. Still no full scale evacuation. By the next morning, many people inexplicably remained in Pompeii.
I understand that modern technological advances were not available in 79 AD. There were no municipal early warning systems. Jim Cantore was not available to report from the side of the volcano. Nonetheless, between the four days of earthquakes and ash explosion, all had notice to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. Some, of course, had no alternative but to stay. Perhaps they cared for elderly or infirmed who could not be moved. Perhaps they were the First Century version of first responders. Perhaps their masters prevented them from fleeing. These people were among the more than 1,000 lost in Pompeii alone.
Mount Vesuvius stands as the only active volcano on the European mainland. Certainly, eruptions over the past few millennia taught us lessons about the consequences of placing population centers near an active volcano. As for Pompeii and the surrounding areas, 600,000 currently live in the defined danger zone of Mount Vesuvius and an additional 3,000,000 reside in the range of those who may be significantly affected by an eruption. Mount Vesuvius is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world. Even Jim Cantore and the Weather Channel may not be able to save those guys.