The morning of 24 August 79 A.D. began like any other in Pompeii. It was a prosperous coastal city on the Campania (Bay of Naples) that had become a part of the Roman Empire in 310 B.C. and had evolved into an important trading center in the Mediterranean. Pompeii, together with the nearby and equally important ports of Puteoli, Misenum, and Caieta, oversaw a huge trade in various consumer goods. Aside from trade, agriculture was booming too; the soil was fertile and the crop yield was plentiful; vine-yards and flowers abounded. A large section of Pompeiian citizens, befittingly, were involved in trading, shopkeeping, craft-making or farming. The city, thanks to its pleasant climate and scenic beauty, not to mention its closeness to the hot springs of Baiae and the lakes of Lucrine and Avernian, attracted droves of tourists in the summer which added to the economy. Some of the most important and rich Roman citizens had summer homes here, large and lavish villas that faced either the sea-coast or the forested green slopes of the beautiful, flat-topped mountain they called Vesuvius.
Pompeii, despite all its charms though, was a somewhat risky place to settle in. The area was disaster prone, especially for tremors. Various reasons were assigned to these happenings. There was a mythology about the giant Mimas who had been imprisoned by the Gods under Vesuvius and it were his tormented movements that supposedly caused the tremors. Roman Scientists and thinkers, of course, tried to come up with better, more plausible explanations. Seneca, the famous Philosopher, studied the phenomena of earthquakes and wrote an entire treatise on their probable causes. He theorized that perhaps there was a connection between earthquakes happening all over the world, and that perhaps bad weather conditions had something to do with them. But neither he nor anybody else attributed the earth rumblings that were now happening with an increasing frequency to underground volcanic activity.
On 5 February 62 A.D., Pompeii was rocked by a terrible earthquake that took a heavy toll of both life and property. The Pompeian aqueducts in particular were severely damaged. Two years later tremors rocked Naples, but no significant damage was caused there. Pompeii however not only took a long time to rally, but experienced more seismic episodes over the following years.
At around 1 pm, the normally serene Vesuvius suddenly stirred and disgorged a sky-high pillar of ash and fire. This pillar remained suspended for several minutes before abruptly collapsing and giving rise to an enormous dark cloud. This curious phenomenon was seen across the Naples Bay in Misenum, where the famous Roman Natural Scientist and Historian Pliny the Elder was the Commander of the Roman Fleet. His sister, the mother of his equally renowned nephew Pliny the Younger, summoned them both from their afternoon siestas to take a look, and, although they couldn't comprehend what was happening, none of them were particularly alarmed. Pliny the Elder in fact, rather intrigued, decided to sail across in one of his ships to investigate the matter; it might be of some scientific importance, he thought. Just as he was setting out he received an urgent message for help from his friend Bassus' wife Rectina, who lived in a villa at the foot of Vesuvius and had no recourse to escaping except via sea. So the scientific expedition turned to a rescue one, and the entire Roman Fleet was ordered into operation. In the meantime the black cloud from the volcano was spreading over the entire area and the sunlight was rapidly fading away. The approaching Roman fleet too was bombarded with falling volcanic debris and had to contend besides with the unexpected retreat of the sea and the huge boulders that were crashing into it from the mountainside. They were forced to change course towards Stabiae, 16 kilometers away and managed to land there by night-fall. The flames atop Vesuvius stood out starkly against the darkness. Pliny the Elder, still not unduly worried, headed for a bath, dinner and a nap at the home of his friend Pomponianus, where he somewhat calmed the household by well-meaning but misguided explanations for what was taking place around them. It was decided to wait until the morning, when the debris fall had either ceased or slowed, to sail back to Misenum. However the fall-out was to continue unremittingly for more than 24 hours. Around midnight the first Pyroclastic surges and flows began, avalanching down the mountain at the speed of more than 100 km/hour. It took only about four minutes for the boiling mud-flow to cover the 7 km from Vesuvius to Herculaneum, and all those who hadn't fled at the very beginning, who had somehow survived the debris shower, now died instantly. Pompeii very shortly underwent the same fate. In both cities, the corpses were left enclosed within successive layers of volcanic fall-out, and entire upper floors of buildings were smashed flat. In Stabiae, Pliny and his company, who had been unable to get much sleep due to the increasingly violent turn of the volcano, headed for the shore in the early hours of the morning, but the rough sea canceled out the sailing plans. As they waited there, enveloped in the strange darkness that would not lighten, the pyroclastic outpouring from the volcano began turning in their direction, accompanied by the poisonous gas emanations that had already killed people in the other towns. Most of the party managed to escape, but Pliny the Elder, either from the fumes or from a heart attack, succumbed on the spot, the most well-known victim of Vesuvius. His fate was narrated back to his relatives by his companions and carefully recorded by his nephew, who escaped with his mother, in two letters to the Roman Historian Tacitus.
On 26 August 79 A.D., the once bustling coastal towns had all fallen silent. The volcano had raged for three entire days and completely annihilated not just Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, but also the towns of Oplontis, Sora, Tora, Taurania, Cossa, and Leucopetra. Several days after the eruption, when it was considered somewhat safe, the surviving citizens returned and attempted to find if any of their missing loved ones had survived and to see if their homes could be found and their possessions salvaged. There were of course no survivors to be found and deep shafts had to be dug in order to reach the buried buildings. Most gave up, others recovered a few valuables. Some salvage work was attempted by Roman soldiers under the orders of the Emperor Titus, but this too didn't amount to much. It appeared to be a pointless and difficult endeavor and was soon abandoned. There were no attempts to rebuild Pompeii and Herculaneum as had been formerly done; the experience of the eruption evidently was not one that could be easily wiped out from the public memory. The other cities however were gradually reestablished and became trading centers and holiday spots once more, although the Campunia region was now quite unrecognizable. Both the course of the Sarnus River and the sea-level had dramatically altered as a result of the eruption. Large tracts of formerly submerged land had been left exposed by the receding sea. The site of the coastal Pompeii thus came to be located far inland, buried under tons of ash, rock, cinder and mud, its people and their possessions preserved eloquently in the panic-stricken states in which they had fallen for almost 1,700 years.
In 1594, quite by chance, some workers who had been digging a water channel discovered sections of an amphitheater, a forum and a temple. A marked stone was found inscribed 'Decurio Pompeiis' and they thought their discoveries had something to do with Pompey, one of the Triumvirate along with Caesar and Crassus. They reported the finds, but didn't stir up much interest. Then in 1707, a marble statue and some other valuable objects were unearthed during the digging of a well on the site of Herculaneum. This interested the local in-charge, Prince d'Elboeuf, in a treasure hunt. Without the slightest idea as to what he was digging up, he began the first serious excavation efforts. It was extremely slow going, carried out over a long period of time, and, of course, as the sole interest was in finding treasures, neither he nor his workers were too particular about preserving intact the buildings as they were unearthed. On 11 December 1738 they found a stone with the inscription 'Theatrum Herculaneum' or 'The Theater of Herculaneum'. It was only now that they understood the significance of their dig. Further digging however was prevented by the 65 feet deep, rock-hard covering of Herculaneum.
In 1748 a buried Pompeiian wall came to light beneath a vineyard, and the diggers from Herculaneum moved here, finding the task easier and showing the same delicacy that they had back there. Most of the recovered treasures found their way to the homes of the wealthy and the fashionable. It was the period of the Bourbon Kings in Naples and the hidden treasures of Pompeii were the focus of international fascination. No proper education was accomplished without a tour of the site and no art connoisseur worth his salt rested easy without having appropriated at least one Pompeiian artifact for his personal collection. Wolfgang Von Goethe, who visited Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1787, was completely appalled by the wanton destruction that had been wrought. Matters were somewhat alleviated in 1860 when Giuseppe Fiorelli became the Director of the Excavations at Pompeii. He introduced a more systematic, non-destructive approach, using modern technology, and, between 1860 and 1875, had unearthed vast portions of the entire city and carefully cataloged all the artifacts found. These objects were then as scrupulously deposited in the Museum of Naples to be shared with the rest of the world.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was decided to display objects in their found location and to preserve the original condition of the excavated buildings. In 1927 the Italian government resumed the Herculaneum excavations, and now much of that city too can be seen. Every year a large influx of tourists descend upon Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the ancient streets once more come alive with human foot-steps.